This is a book that will become more dear as we scoot the post-peak downslope. Not only will anybody who bought it want to hang onto it and sensible people want to get it, it’s the equivalent of a college textbook with similar prices ($94.28 new at Alibris, $98.00 at Seeds of Change, and $104.99 at Amazon, with used copies ranging from an even seventy-nine bucks up to more than two ninety), getting spendier as prices in general go up and discretionary cash goes down. When I got my copy from the Hennepin County Library, it owned five copies, there were holds on all, and I had to wait more than two months for my turn.
I’m reading the first four chapters of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual (Tagari Press, Tyalgum, NSW, Australia, 1988). This post will be an outline of Chapter One, the introduction.
Mollison argues from general to specific in three sections: Philosophy, Ethics, and “Permaculture in Landscape and Society.” That’s consistent with permaculture practice in which we patiently watch places and systems, relationships behaviors and patterns, then act respectfully to provide for ourselves. Mollison begins with the most general, with the result of his observation, and derives his action from that in stages.
Mollison is unequivocal in revealing his design philosophy. He says, “We are in danger of perishing through our own stupidity.” He is concerned with extinction and human appropriation of wilderness, and says that taking responsibility is “the only” ethical decision. Reductionism, the approach to understanding in which we isolate parts from systems, then study the parts of parts to understand what they are, has kept the western, dominant culture from being able to foresee results or to design integrated systems. Life, he says, is cooperative, we are not, and cooperation is the key to our future.
As an example of cooperation, Mollison mentions the relationship between mycorhiza and trees. This went over my head the first time I read it, but since then I’ve read Paul Stamets’ Mycellium Running, and found a pretty interesting anecdote. There are three basic ways fungus make a living. They scavenge dead things; they parasitize living things; and they cooperate with living things. Mycorhiza work the third way, penetrating trees’ roots and extending them. Researchers shielded some trees in a grove, and were able to trace the transfer of nutrients from trees in sun to trees in shade, via the fungi in the ground.
We are in transition, from what Mollison would probably say is a philosophy of soulless accountancy to one in which we can engage with the world honestly and down through millennia. It’s a meeting of science and mysticism. He quotes James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, as saying that life conditions the world for life, it is a “self-regulating system.” We may be the only exception, and maybe the Earth can’t accept that. He quotes native peoples as believing that the ideal way to spend life is to “lead the most evolved life possible and to assist and celebrate other life forms.” Life is trying for perfection and maybe transcendance. Native people understood this and suffered from contact with our technological materialism. Mollison believes that heaven and hell are here and now, and we choose between them.
Ethically, Mollison bases permaculture on three principles: Care of the Earth and preserving life systems; Care of People, in which everybody gets necessary resources; and Setting Limits to Population and Consumption.
He qualifies the third principle by saying, “By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles,” and says we must be self reliant as individuals and cooperate as groups. Cooperation observed in nature becomes and ethical basis. He says he has evolved a philosophy that’s close to Taoism: “Work with rather than against nature. Observe thoughtfully for a long time. Look at systems and people in all their functions. Let systems demonstrate their own evolutions.”
Questions are more important to Mollison than answers. He says we should refuse or reframe mistaken questions. For instance, “What can I get from this land or person?” becomes, “What does this person or land have to give if I cooperate with them?”
Human beings can learn what’s appropriate, and stop doing harmful things. Conservative behaviors evolve this way, and this is the source of tribal taboos. He articulates two rules: “The Rule of Necessitous Use,” in which we leave natural systems alone until we need them, and “The Rule of Conservative Use,” in which we reduce waste, replace lost minerals, and assess long-term harms to life and society and buffer them.
Observing these rules, we may realize that we are connected to the rest of life, maybe by noticing help we receive from species that we did not extinguish. Mollison mentions the mycorhiza, and says we may learn the value of community from examples like this. He hopes that this awareness will expand from family and friends to the entire human species. According to Mollison, the Permaculture Designer’s Manual is about “mechanisms of mature ethical behavior.” Unequivocal. He mentions a global nation of people who share this ethic.
If industrialism is ephemeral, permaculture is permanent. Mollison mentions three approaches to permanence, the peasant or “feudal” approach, the modern or “baronial” approach, and the forest or “communal” approach. In the first, peasants gather and haul manure and other nutrients to fertilize grain. The second uses the most land, few people, machinery, and single species. He says this is the least productive use of land we can devise, destroys landscapes and soil life, and makes “agricultural deserts.” The forest approach needs generations of care, and reverence. This is the permaculture approach. The further you get from this, says Mollison, the greater the risk of “tyranny, feudalism, revolution, toil.” Modern agriculture is unstable and vulnerable to natural disaster or economic attack, it needs energy from outside the system, and it subordinates the needs of people to the needs of commerce.
Mollison has a two-page illustration at this point. The left side pictures three stages of transition from “Contemporary Western Agriculture” in year 1, through “Transitional and Conservation Farming” in year four, to “Permaculture; 70% of Cropland Devoted to Forage Farming” in year eight. The right side has bar graphs for each of the three stages showing improvement from year one to year eight in fifteen areas:
Total Cash Income (+ over time)
Total Cash Cost (- over time)
Oil or Calories Used for Fuel, Fertilizer, Biocides (- over time)
Energy Produced (+ over time)
Soil Loss (- over time)
Efficiency of Water Use and Soil Water Storage (+ over time)
Pollution (- over time)
Genetic Richness of Crops and Livestock (+ over time)
Soil Life (+ over time)
Forest Biomass (+ over time)
Loss to Pests (- over time)
Farm Employment (+ over time)
Food Quality (+ over time)
Human and Environmental Health (+ over time)
Life Quality as “Right Livelihood” (+ over time)
Caption: “Selected forests not only yield more than annual crops, but provide a diverse nutrient and fuel resource for such crops.”
Permanent agriculture is necessary for stable social order. Going from permanent agriculture to commercial, annual agriculture takes our society from low-energy to high-energy consumption, and leads us to exploit the third world. Mollison says he tells people to “go home and garden and not try to improve mechanized agriculture.” He sees a new ecological synthesis using whole-system energy flows as described by Howard Odum. (Howard Odum was an American ecologist, of the World War II generation. He was interested in general systems theory, and developed the concept of embodied energy, or “emergy,” which is commonly used by permaculturists to mean things which can be harnessed or harvested to promote yield. Examples are sun, rain, wind, and soil fertility. Embodied energy might also be the leaves that get caught in a fence or hedge. Odum used electrical circuits as analogies in discussing the flow of chemicals like carbon in natural systems. Larger ecosystems are more stable, with the world itself being most stable. I think Mollison would say that people should take advantage of this by integrating our systems with the largest and most stable.)
Permaculture designers should concentrate on rehabbing and rethinking already settled areas. This amounts to designing ecosystems. Focusing on food, fuel, and water supply will free most of the world’s natural systems and let wilderness come back, so designers will select species for yields that benefit humans. In natural ecosystems, organisms digest the native dead plant and animal matter. In designed ecosystems, humans have the responsibility of selecting and arranging it for the organisms to recycle. There would be cycles in which garden waste, kitchen scraps, graywater, and manure would become soils, along with occasional imports. Talking with Sam about brewing, and the effect yeast selection has on flavor makes me wonder if, someday, gardeners would select the organisms that live in the compost pile, designing compost to encourage some species or enhance the flavor of another.
Mollison reminds us that we can catch rainwater, and build soils to hold water longer, but we still need forests to feed clouds and rivers and “lock up gaseous pollutants.” Our survival demands conservation. He says, “We have abused land and laid waste to systems we need never have disturbed had we attended to our home gardens and settlements,” and stipulates four “Natural Systems Ethics: Implacable and uncompromising opposition to further disturbance of remaining forests; rehabilitation of damaged systems to steady states; establishment of our plant systems on the least amount of land; and establishment of refuges for threatened species.
Mollison says permaculture is most interested in establishing plant systems on the least amount of land. He insists that “all people who act responsibly” subscribe to these statements:
“Implacable and uncompromising opposition to further disturbance of any remaining natural forests where most species are still in balance,” and “vigorous rehabilitation of degraded and damaged natural systems to stable states.”
That said, he goes on to say that we should use all species that would be useful to our settlement designs, “provided they are not locally rampant and invasive.” This is probably the source for criticisms that permaculture promotes importing invasive species (despite Mollison’s disclaimer). How do you know what a foreign species will do in a new location? Due diligence would seem to require a survey of a species’ relationships in its native range before importing it, but someone like me would find that beyond practicality, and might be tempted to just go ahead and introduce “that Caucasian perennial spinach that’s been in all the permaculture magazines.”
Mollison says that the world changes naturally -- glaciation, continental drift, wind, birds, rafting on bodies of water -- the implication that we wouldn’t be doing anything that nature doesn’t do itself, just doing it a little faster. What he’s suggesting is that we mimic the natural, larger ecosystem, and integrate with it locally, but can we trust ourelves to do that, taking species for our purposes from foreign contexts? “Can you hunt the prey for the lions or satisfy the appetite of the young lions?”
In a period of deforestation and extinction, Mollison says there are “three parallel and concurrent responses to the environment: “Care for surviving natural assemblies to leave the wilderness to heal itself;” “Rehabilitate degraded or eroded land, using complex pioneer species (what is a complex species?) and long-term plant assemblies” (meaning trees, shrubs, and companion ground covers); and “Create our own complex living environment with as many species as we can save, or have need for from wherever on Earth they come.”
Mollison is talking about building useful, designed ecosystems. I’m all for that, but can we know enough about an exotic species and its relationships to add it to the backyard. There are at least two large operations within a half day’s drive from Minneapolis where the owners began by planting several varieties of apple, and selecting the varieties that did best on their sites. Without spraying, both these permaculture orchards yield tasty, unblemished fruit. How could the growers have anticipated whatever it was that made the varieties that succeeded thrive? Eathworms aren’t native to Minnesota. They are good for garden soil, but make forest soils hard, endangering the trees. Who knew?
Mollison says we need refuges for all global life forms. We should try to observe systems that remain and build “new or recombinant ecologies” to stabilize degraded ones.
The chemistry of the air, soil, and water is in flux because of human-invented materials.
The first thing Mollison says we need to do is to get our house (and garden) in order so that we can count on it to support us and not feed the poisons we have made back to us. The second one is to limit our population. These are “intimately connected duties,” and if we don’t perform them, we are a “plague.”
Unequivocal and implacable again, Mollison insists that “responsible conservationists” support themselves with gardens, and work to reduce their energy needs to what can be supplied locally and harmlessly. Mollison is not shy about saying that it’s hypocritical to call for conservation on one hand and live on mass-produced products on the other. Nor is he shy about implying that religion shares in this hypocrisy. Wonder and feeling for the environment are necessary, and religions need to cultivate an “live by” that wonder. My guess is that Mollison came out of a non-sacramental kind of Protestantism, but would he approve of a new religion that made compost as a sign of grace?
Or to sacramentally create and support wilderness? He believes permaculturists should support wilderness-conserving organizations, and maintain some wilderness on the land for which we are responsible, be it a butterfly garden in a backyard, or a forest preserve on larger property.
Mollison finishes the chapter by saying, “Design is the keyword of this book: design in landscape, social and conceptual systems, and design in space and time. I have attempted a treatment of the difficult subject of paterning, and have tried to order some complex subjects so as to make them accessible. The text is positivistic without either the pretended innocence or the belief that everything will turn out right. Only if we make it so will this happen.
“Adoption of permaculture strategies will reduce land needed to support us and release land for wildlife and wild systems. Respect for all life forms is a basic, and in fact essential ethic for all people.”