Permaculture: Question Authority

Tea_garden_buddhaA culture of personality, permaculture Fathers and their “North of the 38th Parallel” off-spring (again I have to say no Earth Mothers here) have found notoriety through online videos, bits and pieces of beautiful, lush and verdant landscape. One Father that has intrigued me for some time is Geoff Lawton. His most well-known project is the Jordan Valley Project covered in several videos entitled “Greening the Desert.” I think this project is a great example of how social science and community organizing must be part of this work…well, at least if you want to share the wealth.

Shortly after my first viewing of “Greening the Desert” One, Two and the updates, I began to wonder what had happened that the site had not continued to be treated under the permaculture practices and why the funding had been discontinued. Why had new funding sources not been developed?

The issue of funding and what may have happened to the original source for the first Jordan Valley site is touched on when the narrator of the video states that a second site is being considered which will be obtained with funds directly from the Permaculture Research Institute – the organization closely associated with Geoff Lawton.  There were references to having control over the funding so that an outside funding source would not be able to discontinue funding or control how a site is developed.

The majority of articles and videos about the Jordan Valley project present it as a huge success, if not inspirational. According to these sources all of the practices implemented worked, even if for a limited time. Success seemed to be measured by the growth of the plants, by the presence of moisture. By carefully worded subtitles on the screen it was implied that the human community had abandoned the project site. We see bare cropping areas, a facility that had been built as a training facility, and goats wandering freely, allowed to browse wherever, when ever.  An article entitled “Permaculture Greens the Jordanian Desert, But Why Are People Wary?” by Sami Grover, dated October 14, 2010 states:

“While the drip irrigation systems demonstrated in the video are impressive, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the project is reliant on volunteer labor from abroad—while the volunteers describe how the local population has a hard time understanding the idea of saving and using rain water. It’s yet another reminder that outsiders can only do so much when it comes to ‘development’ work—ultimately we have to find solutions that communities will adopt and run with themselves.”

“The second rule: Never go outside the experience of your people.” This quote is from Saul Alinsky, one of the greatest community organizers of the 20th century. Along with horticulture and soil science, anyone hoping to share the concepts of permaculture in an effort to improve the quality of life on this planet NEEDS to read Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Where ever you see the word “enemy” in that text insert the words “fear/ignorance”.

If, for whatever reason, we believe that it is our mission to “help” those who we perceive to be leading impoverished lives, we had better first find out how those communities see themselves. We may believe that our methods and behaviors will bring what we have defined as a ‘better quality of life’.  It is only self-serving and narcissistic to assume that we know best. If we have tools to offer we let others know of them and watch vigilantly for a door to open. Even then, we must enter with humility and with many questions and an open mind so that we provide only that which is asked and in such a way as to support the values of the community asking. Authority is never in the outsider. The safety offered by authority is the only way that a community will take the risk to try something outside of their experience even if that thing may provide them with some relief.

From the minimal research I have done for this review I believe that Mr. Lawton will only find his form of “success” by being more in control of his project site and by inviting “the choir” to come to the site to do all of the ground work.  As a last note, there was one website which was extremely caustic in its reports of Lawton’s lack of “people skills” and his disrespectful treatment of “students” who paid high fees to “learn” at his facility.  In every report there is a thread of truth and a great deal of the author’s perception and interpretation. If only a thread is true, it was a sad and damaging report. Another Internet site offered an email from Scott Pittman, Director, Permaculture Institute, dated December 24 2010 which not only questioned Lawton’s motives and ethics, but grieved the loss of Bill Mollison as an active member of the international movement. Apparently his skill at pedagogy and his work with people was a substantially positive influence in the movement.

It is a sad commentary on the permaculture movement that the most well known “teachers” do no advise their “students” to always think critically, testing ideas and applications as the Buddha advised his followers:

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” – The Kalama Sutra

Permaculture: No Guts

Researching the final assignment for the online course and finally had to make this observation: The permaculture community has no guts. Talk about how important failure is to development, but never risk their own personal failure by critically reviewing the work of the pantheon of mythical heros. Talk about how the science of botany, horticulture, agriculture, flow dynamics, geology, economics, organic chemistry is so important to the methods, but so far very little if any real science happening… you know, hypothesis, null hypothesis, research design, statistical treatment, replication, predictability, failure, redesign, etc.

It is my observation that the leading Fathers of Permaculture are not interested in this activity. It is easier to plant and then make pretty videos of the best results. Not having seen all of the permaculture videos, I am hopeful that someone has done the “Do Not Try This At Home”  video of failures. In this design work – as in science – failures are essential to progress.

Permaculture is a practice, like medicine and the law. The foundation of permaculture should be recognized as physical and ethical laws.  A practice is dynamic, and feels safe changing and growing and failing and recovering because it is based on those laws: that consistent, moisture is necessary; that specific levels of sunlight for specific plants is necessary; that certain livestock managed in certain ways will predictably increase the productivity of the land; that providing a useful demonstration which fits the value system of a community is more important than who is providing that demonstration.

The mythical heros (again, I’m not seeing a heroine among the vanguard in Valhalla) are a distraction.

This course and the reflective element and the belief in that reflective element by the facilitator has brought me to a new level of commitment and understanding of my role. For me it is not just about growing my own food (I do that now); not about improving my property; it is not just about making an income; it is not about saving the earth because I alone cannot do that. But I believe deeply in the fundamentals of this practice and I believe that individuals can experience a certain kind of freedom by adopting these ways, a feeling of self-determination, and some small relief from a feeling of helplessness. I also believe in critical mass: the smallest amount of material necessary to maintain a chain reaction…

When asked to reflect (briefly) on global warming…

FirstSnow2014

“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!” – The Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury,1952

 

Gawd bless Ray Bradbury and Edward Lorenz. By bringing the concept of the “butterfly effect” into popular culture by way of science fiction, movies and tee shirt décor at the very least the world has been exposed to it. And this is the beginning of the evolution of thought for people (I always hesitate to use “human beings” because I have a sense of that creature as a more highly evolved creature than “person” in general; think “mensch”). It is clear that the most difficult part of global warming is getting people to accept that they are not separate from their environment. That is such a huge evolutionary step. As long as we do not accept our place in and impact on the total environment, we do not have to feel guilt, regret, shame, responsible. We do not have to adjust or change and experience discomfort – the difference between climbing into our big pickup truck and climbing into public transit. For one thing the smell usually wakes you up quicker than that cup of non-fair trade coffee. If we valued public transit more the conveyances would be so much more inviting. But then I live out in the country and drink Yuban coffee. Go figure. It’s all about balance.

 

No one has to change so drastically that it unbalances their existence. Evolution can occur by small adjustments or by ‘shock and awe’. Set your own pace and ‘shock and awe’ will be less shocking and awesome. But I do think that change should always feel just a little uncomfortable, like peeking around a dark corner.

 

But let me balance this: Gawd bless some scientists too. When reading the recently-released IPCC 5th Assessment I found very clear attention paid to the tenuousness of statistics. Really good scientists (and yes, that is my judgment call; remember I’m a Thomas Kuhn disciple) always, always, always quote their source, which can only be a replicated, peer-reviewed treatment, and they always, always, always comment on the reliability of their numbers. I was HORRIBLE in math classes up and until statistics in which for some very interesting reasons I attained straight A grades.

 

Cast away government regulation; it swings with politics. Litigation has made some huge inroads with industries cleaning up their own act. If that kind of financial fear is the only leverage on the biggest polluters then so be it. Keep that tool sharp.

 

Working with individuals, giving them the tools and opportunity to experience a healthier way of doing things is the key. And then the 100th Monkey phenomenon will doubtless occur. When a shared knowledge hits critical mass in a population, suddenly and without much warning, the entire population emulates the behavior. (The Hundredth Monkey, Ken Keyes Jr; 1952 on the Japanese island of Koshima with Macaca fuscata).

 

As individuals we make choices which will impact the world and return to us in a manner that depends greatly on our intent (initial conditions). As permaculture disciples we appropriately share the information until the neighborhood  , the community, the city, each reach critical mass of knowledge. Revolution is a glorious thing…especially when it is sneaky.

The End. Namaste