Permaculture, Nature & Civilization

Source: Permaculture Research Institute of Australia

Permaculture was first a contraction of the words permanent agriculture, later being widened to include all permanent culture. The problem is, however, that culture is seen as opposed to nature, its contradiction. Ross Wolf writes:

The concept usually opposed to “culture” is “nature,” as structuralist anthropology taught us long ago. Permaculture could thus be seen to signify a state of permanent unnature. – Ross Wolf

I guess you are all a little shocked now. Does permaculture really mean a state of permanent unnature? I don’t think this was the intention of our founding father, Bill Mollison. Do we have to build a new brand?


That the world sees culture as opposed to nature gives us huge marketing and communication problems. People’s minds become confused when we claim that permaculture is living in symbiosis with nature, as this, in the world’s understanding of the word culture, is a self contradiction. People don’t believe in self-contradicting people.

I would again stress that the opposition of culture to civilization was usually invoked by right-wing nationalists, if not outright fascists. I think that is why Adorno, Elias, and others objected to any sort of hard-and-fast line of separation between them. – Ross Wolf

Are permaculturists really nothing but a bunch of fascists? I’ve sometimes seen in the comments to permaculture related blogs statements like; “let’s withdraw from civilization”, “let civilization die” and so on. Surely not nationalism, but maybe a kind of not brown, but green fascism? Does the world have to fear us as civilization’s worst enemy? Some people even claim that permaculture is a fanatic ideology bringing us all back to the Stone Age.

What is the meaning of the word civilization, what are its origins and when did the word enter the stage? Rather than trying to answer these questions for you, I’ll encourage you to read Ross Wolf’s brilliant essay on these matters. I just post the start of his essay and hope it will encourage you to read it all. You’ll find it here.

It is difficult to even mention the concept of civilization without conjuring up images of Occidental hauteur. One is immediately reminded of the so-called “civilizing mission” undertaken by the great colonial powers of Europe. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Nevertheless, the timing of its emergence in history cannot be thought a mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. According to the French semiotician Émile Benveniste, the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau.[1] Though it derives more generally from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and legality, “civilization” in its modern sense dates only from the Enlightenment. In its post-1765 French usage, Benveniste observed that here “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as the state of civilized society.”[2] – Ross Wolf

Civilization is now reshaping the earth, and humanity has entered the new geological era of the Anthropocene. The term has Greek roots: anthropo- meaning “human” and -cene meaning “new”. Some data on what this mean is illustrated in this slideshow:

 Unfortunately today’s civilization is at odds with the laws of thermodynamics, and will rapidly bring us back to barbarism of a hitherto unseen scale if we don’t build a new foundation for civilization.

It is our premise that human societies will not succeed in overcoming our myriad eco-crises through better ‘green’ technology or economic reforms alone; we must pioneer new types of governance that allow and encourage people to move from anthropocentrism to biocentrism, and to develop qualitatively different types of relationships with nature itself and, indeed, with each other. An economics and supporting civic polity that valorizes growth and material development as the precondition for virtually everything else is ultimately a dead end—literally. – David Bollier

Our civilization is anthropocentric and brought us to the Anthropocene, an era that necessarily will become the shortest geological period in the history of earth. Still its consequences will have a deep impact, bringing one of the worst mass extinctions ever seen. To survive we have to turn our civilization away from anthropocentrism to biocentrism, as we are now accelerating into a dead end,

Within a new world view of biocentrism, the old definition of nature, as being in opposition to culture, makes no sense. We have to reunite nature and culture as the very essence of a new civilization, living in balance with the laws of thermodynamics. Getting back to the order of nature.

The Nature of Order is not only a summa summarum of what Oxford University Press has called “The World of Christopher Alexander”, but it is surely one of the most ambitious books ever published. If its profound argument — that order in both nature and in what we build are essentially the same — is ultimately understood and accepted by serious readers, it may prove to be one of the most consequential works Oxford has published in all its 500 years*. – William McClung, special project editor for Oxford University Press, former senior editor of the University of California Press

(*In the end the NofO-series was published by Alexander’s Center for Environmental Structure.)

McClung doesn’t go far enough, as Alexander has documented that order and wholeness in human systems, art and nature, is one and the same (PDF). Only if we’re surrounded by spatial and temporal structures echoing nature can we be whole as human beings. This is the very essence of the new science of biophilia.

I will argue that after The nature of Order was published, the old definition of culture as being in opposition to nature lost all validity. And this way Alexander, unintentionally, provided the term permaculture with the most solid substance you can ever think about. Permaculture is the best definition of culture in a post-Alexandrine world!

In this, the work of art is similar to nature, because in nature too, this “I” is what we find. The rock, the ripple in the pond, and the fish darting along the stream are connected to this I, reverberate with it, awaken and enliven us, continually refresh the I which sleeps in us. And this I which sleeps in us will not then follow the remembered voice. For this I which comes to life, as we gaze upon the pond, the buttercup, the cloud floating in the purple sky, the rush of water in the thunderstorm – this self is first awakened and then speaks to us, encouraging the I in us to be itself, in a new form taken within us, not similar but awakened in its newness, and speaking, itself, in a voice which will awaken I in other selves. – Christopher Alexander, The Luminous Ground, page 4

If we follow Wolf’s argument further one can say that the more our culture becomes unnature, the more cultural it becomes. Seen like this our culture has now achieved its peak in architecture, the ultimate expression telling us what kind of culture we’re living in. In modernist architecture there’s nothing left of nature, its structure is pure anti-nature. This in a modernist world view means the purest of all cultures there ever were, like 24 karats of gold.

In a modernist’s interpretation the ancient culture of the Bali island would be a very poor culture, as it reflected nature in every aspect — being part and parcel of it. The Danish artist and writer Morten Skriver claims the lost culture of Bali was one of the most vivid, if not the most vivid culture that has ever existed. (See his e-book, page 302-304, in Swedish).

The Austrian architect and modernist Adolf Loos even claimed that ornament is a crime. Of course he did, because ornament is an expression of nature, meeting our biophilic sensory necessities. (To read a longer discussion by Alexander on ornament, please go here).

It is humanity’s lot to cultivate the earth. In a different key, “culture” may be seen to be humanity’s mastery over nature. “Civilization,” by contrast, would be humanity’s self-conscious mastery of its own activities (i.e., freedom). – Ross Wolf

Ross Wolf has for sure not heard about Christopher Alexander’s wholeness-extending-transformations, earlier known as structure-preserving-transformations. Wolf is wrong when he claims that our lot is to cultivate the earth; it’s not! Our lot is to extend the earth, to make it more and more whole, using the wholeness-extending-transformations documented in The Nature of Order. This doesn’t mean being masters over nature, but masters of nature, which is the completely opposite. If we don’t manage to achieve wholeness, civilization will collapse and we cannot call ourselves civilized.

One reason this matters is that when wholeness is not achieved, then the system in question is disordered and inefficient, and probably headed towards a state of collapse. If it is a biological system, we might say it is “diseased”. If it is a system of human technology, we will probably say it is highly inefficient and perhaps unsustainable, and needs to be reformed. The alternative may well be a catastrophic collapse of the systems upon which human wellbeing depends—or at the very least, a disastrous decline. Sustainable systems of technology seem to have been designed, perhaps unselfconsciously, with wholeness in mind. – Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros

Central in wholeness-extending are the 15 transformations, derived from the 15 properties of life. Nature is not a wild beast that needs to be tamed; she’s our master providing us with her tools, so that both we and she can become more whole, more rich, more interwoven. This is why she created us in the first place, using the same transformations. Not as her masters, but mastering her skills. There is nothing she wants more, and she’s waiting impatiently for us to learn her knowledge.

I believe the fifteen transformations I have discovered will turn out to be naturally occurring, and necessarily occurring in all complex systems. The laws leading to their existence, will turn out, I think, to be inevitable or necessary results of the unfolding of wholeness, under the right conditions. And I believe, too, that our 20th-century notion that mechanical effects without the guiding influence of these fifteen transformations, can create the beautiful structures we encounter in the universe, is simply wrong. In other words, it is the action of wave motion, mitigated by the fifteen transformations, that creates the beauty of the breaking wave; it is the operation of natural selection, mitigated by the action of these fifteen transformations, which generates discernible and coherent forms in the play of genetics and evolution; I believe it is the operation and unfolding of the most ordinary flower or stem of grass, mitigated by the operation of the same fifteen transformations, which generates the beauty of the flower. I believe that it is the same fifteen transformations which mitigate and channel the crumbling and heaving and bending of the geologic strata which generated the beauty of the Himalaya; and these fifteen transformations, too, which mitigate the action and swirling of the vortices on Jupiter, or the rippled piebald configurations we call a mackerel sky. – Christopher Alexander, New Concepts in Complexity Theory, page 21

And thus nature, culture and civilization are again united under the flag of permaculture. We are not fascists, we are masters — not the masters over nature, we are the new masters of nature. This is true stewardship, working with nature from within, as a part of it. And this way we can enrich not only ourselves, but even the world of which we are part. Freedom is being part of an extended whole, the more interwoven we are with nature and each other, the more free we are. You might call it civilization; you might call it wholeness, as a synonym for life. Alexander calls it wholeness. I think this is a better name.

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