A culture critique of the primitivist wing of the permaculture movement

Eric Hunting in the Open Manufacturing discussion list:

“Permaculture is a valuable and practical technology whose inspiration probably has its roots (pun intended…) in Taoist gardening and cultures like that of the Chagga tribes of the south-eastern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro where, until recent times, the purposeful concerted co- cultivation of nearly a thousand plant species was employed to create one of the most remarkable agrarian cultures ever seen. Communities that look like natural jungle but host 100,000 people in comfort. Permaculture is, essentially, the _engineering_ of artificial ecosystems for the purpose of maximizing productivity for a diversity of food crops. It’s one of those brilliant ‘lazy like an engineer’ concepts where one is trying to create a self-perpetuating system for one’s own benefit that you need put the least amount of human effort into maintaining. It has its counterpart in polyspecies mariculture which is, again, an attempt to cultivate a self-perpetuating ecosystem that maximizes the production of a number of marine crops starting with algea at the bottom of the food chain -in this way eliminating the economic overhead of feedstocks. It’s particularly important to maximizing the economic and carbon replacement potential of the use of OTEC power, exploiting the nutrient-rich upwelling discharge from these systems as the base feedstock. And it’s efficient. Polyspecies mariculture can potentially yield about 5 times the protein per hectare of any conventional form of land farming.

The thing with Mollison and other later members of the permaculture movement is that they came out of the 1970s era split in the original environmentalism movement between EcoTech and Soft Tech that resulted from the emergence of an environmental fundamentalism with its origins in 18th century Romanticism and with much influence from neopaganism. Part of this has been the drafting of an arbitrary distinction between ‘technology’ and other kinds of artifice in the manner of the distinction between the secular and the religious, the former being characterized as profane, the latter virtuous. This relates to the Romanticists rejection of the rationalism of the Enlightenment in favor of the spiritual, emotional, and presumably more ‘human’ and ‘natural’. And so it becomes ‘blasphemous’ to consider permaculture or other forms of Soft Tech (a term environmentalists won’t even use anymore) a technology with both constructive and destructive potential like any other technology because if its non-electric/electronic, non- mechanical, primitive-seeming, and involves getting your hands dirty and being in intimate contact with trees and plants then it somehow means its more in-tune with the Gaian Logos.

There’s no reason to this. There’s no reason why biophysics should somehow be more virtuous than any other aspect of physics. But this isn’t about reason. It’s religion. Progress in permaculture has generally been slowed by this. To be effective at permaculture means to be a scientist and engineer with a deep comprehension of biology and the ecological relationships between organisms. But this cultural rejection of science and ‘naughty technology’ among so many of the proponents of permaculture -this nonsense that it represents a moral rather than practical alternative to agriculture- results in it not getting the benefit of serious scientific research and thus never being refined as a technique to be broadly implemented. This may be changing with the emergence of the new Bright Green movement -a resurgence of the EcoTech side of environmentalism coming in reaction to the increasing plain deterioration of environmental fundamentalism into a Malthusianist doomsday cult.”

1 Comment A culture critique of the primitivist wing of the permaculture movement

  1. AvatarTere Vaden

    I think it is safe to say that the most common way of thinking about natural science is that it is a neutral way of trying to find out how things are in the world. In the process of doing that, natural science has then found out that the world consists of human-independent physical entities that interact in systematic law-governed ways. Through discovering these laws we can manipulate the human-independent physical world, indeed, engineer it to maximize this or that property or behaviour.

    However, this way of seeing science is debatable. It can be claimed that the order is the opposite: natural science starts from the assumption that there exists a human-independent and causally structured world, consisting of physical entities. All the empirical results of natural science are dependent on and follow from these basic assumptions.

    One way of arguing for the latter position would be to point out that it is empirically very hard if not impossible to find an example of a culture/society/practice that would rely on natural science but that would not have embraced the (Western) notions of separeteness of humans and nature, and the “billiard ball” picture of nature. In other words, it seems not to be possible to practice (Western) natural science without practicing a (Western) view of humans & nature. Natural science & Western modernity seem to be empirically an “a-tomistic”, ie. indivisible whole. (I really would like to hear of an example proving the contrary).

    What Eric Hunting is proposing, i.e. a scientifically informed deep-ecological permacultural practice, seems in principle possible. Indeed, if we hold the first view of natural science, it seems strange if not perverse that such a thing does not empirically exist. However, if we see natural science as essentially embedded in Western modern notions of humans and nature as the second view proposes, it becomes clear that the presuppositions of natural science are, in part, incompatible with, say, Taoist or other traditional views and practices. Hence the suspicion or hostility of “primitivist” permaculturists toward “techno-permaculture” could be seen as a new form of the well-known and often lamented resistance of traditional/aboriginal cultures towards science-based modernization.

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