Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture - Moving Theo, Notas de estudo de Engenharia Florestal

Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture - Moving Theo, Notas de estudo de Engenharia Florestal

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Using a variety of theoretical rubrics, recent work in ecological and environmental anthropology has revealed that human–environment interactions within the context of global capitalism are complex and have increasingly unjust and unsustainable outcomes. As globalization proceeds and associated socio-environmental problems become clear, it is important that ecological and environmental anthropologists use empirical research to develop both theoretical and practical approaches to addressing the sustainability challenge. We suggest that an anthropological engagement with permaculture represents an especially timely opportunity for anthropologists to move toward sustainability in ways that complement and enable us to extend our traditional areas of theoretical and practical expertise. Permaculture is a development strategy that has a history of grassroots application, but it has been largely ignored by mainstream development practitioners and anthropologists alike. We argue that permaculture deserves a closer look. In this article, we trace the historical development of permaculture, provide examples of permaculture in practice in an ecovillage context, identify compatible areas of research within environmental anthropology, and make suggestions for engagement.
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Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability

Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability

James R. Veteto, and Joshua Lockyer

James R. Veteto and Joshua Lockyer are with the

Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia,

Athens, GA.


Using a variety of theoretical rubrics, recent work in

ecological and environmental anthropology has revealed that

human–environment interactions within the context of global

capitalism are complex and have increasingly unjust and

unsustainable outcomes. As globalization proceeds and asso-

ciated socio-environmental problems become clear, it is impor-

tant that ecological and environmental anthropologists use

empirical research to develop both theoretical and practical

approaches to addressing the sustainability challenge. We sug-

gest that an anthropological engagement with permaculture

represents an especially timely opportunity for anthropologists

to move toward sustainability in ways that complement and

enable us to extend our traditional areas of theoretical and

practical expertise. Permaculture is a development strategy

that has a history of grassroots application, but it has been

largely ignored by mainstream development practitioners and

anthropologists alike. We argue that permaculture deserves a

closer look. In this article, we trace the historical development

of permaculture, provide examples of permaculture in practice

in an ecovillage context, identify compatible areas of research

within environmental anthropology, and make suggestions

for engagement. [Keywords: permaculture, sustainabil-

ity, agriculture, community, ecovillages, sustainable

development, environmental anthropology]

Permaculture in Practice: One Anthropologist’s Introduction

It’s a cool, blustery day at Earthaven, a young

ecovillage settlement nestled into the eastern

slopes of the southern Appalachians. Breaking

through the rustle of wind in the trees are the

sounds of human activity, of people building their

common future together, of children at play. In

the distance you can hear the Earthaven Forestry

Cooperative’s portable sawmill cutting lumber

from trees felled on the land. This is the sound of

liberation. The Co-op’s sawmill is allowing villagers

and neighbors to create shelter, freeing themselves

from the clutches of banks and clear-cutting timber

barons while keeping materials and money within

the village economy. These are radical acts. Should

these and other permaculture-based strategies

take hold in the larger society, corporate control

might someday yield to an empowered, responsi-

ble, ecologically literate citizenry. We can hope it

will be in time to pull humanity back from the brink

of disaster brought on by our own folly.

A major first-generation challenge for the Perma-

culture movement and one of the main reasons for

the creation of Earthaven is to get enough working

systems on the grounds that we can make in-

formed choices based on actual experience and

begin to model bioregionally appropriate culture

for our time and place. Creating and integrating

ecologically responsible forestry and agriculture

while developing natural building systems that

conserve forest health, create jobs and generate re-

newable energy through good design has proved

to be quite an ambitious undertaking. That we are

doing all these things while feeling our way toward

just and sustaining social and economic relations

and maintaining democratic self-governance within

a new village context still seems nearly miraculous,

the more so the longer we persist. [Marsh 2002:44]

In the fall of 2004, Lockyer initiated field research

in an intentional community in the Appalachian

Mountains of western North Carolina called Eartha-

Culture & Agriculture Vol. 30, Numbers 1 & 2 pp. 47–58, ISSN 1048-4876, eISSN 1556-486X. r 2008 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-486X.2008.00007.x.

ven Ecovillage. Earthaven was founded in 1994 by a

dozen people who started with a basic but ambitious

goal of ‘‘creating a holistic, sustainable culture.’’ They

bought 320 acres of land and decided to form a com-

munity where they could support each other in

creating a different way of life, one that is more so-

cially intimate and less dependent on an integrated

unsustainable system of production and consumption.

Today, Earthaven has grown to over 60 members, 45 of

whom live ‘‘on the land,’’ gradually implementing so-

cial, cultural, political, economic, and technological

experiments in sustainability. Compared with most

Americans, Earthaven’s members live more commu-

nally and much closer to the economic resources that

sustain them. They own, steward, and govern their

land collectively using unique forms of land tenure

and consensus decision making. Although some of

them live in individual residential dwellings, they

come together to eat, socialize, and govern themselves

in common buildings and spaces. Members share

common waste processing and water distribution sys-

tems, which they construct and maintain themselves,

in addition to producing as much of their own food,

energy, and material goods as they can. Although the

specific form of Earthaven’s experiments in sustain-

able living might be unique, the concept of an

ecovillage is not. The Global Ecovillage Network

(GEN) is today tracking over 400 ecovillage projects

around the world (GEN 2008). A description of this

movement is beyond the scope of this paper and has

been provided by Lockyer elsewhere (2007a and 2007b).

However, the most commonly quoted definition of the

term ecovillage is indicative of the lofty goals that

motivate the people and communities that comprise

the movement: ‘‘Ecovillages are human-scale, full-

featured settlements in which human activities are

harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way

that is supportive of healthy human development, and

which can be successfully continued into the indefinite

future’’ (Dawson 2006:13).

By aligning itself with the global ecovillage move-

ment, the founders of Earthaven made it clear that

they were committing themselves to exploring an

alternative paradigm of development, an approach

that takes responsibility for the effects of people’s

lifestyles and livelihoods on ecosystem function, and

human health and well-being. However, this defini-

tion of ecovillage provides only an abstract outline of

what Earthaven and other ecovillages like it are. How

does one go about developing a full-featured settle-

ment in which human activities are harmlessly inte-

grated into the natural world? How does one create

communities that can support healthy human devel-

opment that can be maintained into the indefinite

future? As is true of any sustainability movement,

achieving such goals will require significant fore-

thought, risk-taking, and expertise. As many anthro-

pologists would likely agree, achieving sustainability

entails actions grounded in detailed knowledge of

local ecological, political–economic, and socio-cultural

systems combined with a global awareness and scien-

tific acumen. But how is one to bring all of these

components together in a way that makes sense and

can lead to practical action?

Permaculture is a holistic system of DESIGN,

based on direct observation of nature, learning

from traditional knowledge and the findings

of modern science. Embodying a philosophy of

positive action and grassroots education, Perma-

culture aims to restructure society by returning

control of resources for living: food, water, shelter

and the means of livelihood, to ordinary people in

their communities, as the only antidote to central-

ized power. [Permaculture Activist 2004:3]

The above quotation is on the inside cover of every

edition of Permaculture Activist magazine, a publica-

tion that was edited by one of Earthaven’s members

during the time of Lockyer’s fieldwork. As initial

participant observation at Earthaven Ecovillage pro-

gressed, it became apparent that the permaculture

paradigm provided a practical foundation for mem-

bers to reach their goal of developing a holistic,

sustainable culture. Indeed, permaculture’s ethical

philosophy and material design principles provided

the tools for translating the ecovillage concept from

idealism into practice. At Earthaven Ecovillage, per-

maculture has been used as one of the main tools for

building bridges between global social and environ-

mental awareness and concern and the development

of local, sustainable practices.

According to their website:

One of our first tasks was to create a permacul-

ture-based site plan for developing our mountain

forest property. We identified sacred sites; land

to remain forested; areas for gardening, farming,

and orchards; locations for ponds and hydro-power

stations; locations for roads, paths, and common

Culture & Agriculture 48 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

community buildings; and locations for residential

neighborhoods. We agreed to build homes only on

slopes and save flat bottom land for agriculture;

retain as much water on the land as possible

through roof water catchments, swales, and ponds;

regenerate our soil with layers of organic biomass;

protect our sacred sites; and not build on ridge

tops. We build passive-solar heated buildings

of natural Earth-friendly materials and generate

our own off-grid power. We practice sustainable

forestry and preserve many of our wilderness

areas. We are not yet growing and raising most of

our own food; however, this is important to us and

is one of our next steps. [Earthaven Ecovillage 2008]

Although Earthaven is by no means a purist ren-

dering of permacultural thought in action, time spent

there does make it clear that the permaculture para-

digm provides a holistic and common-sense approach

that recognizes humans as an integrated part of

ecosystems. Permaculture challenges humans to take

responsibility for themselves and the economy that

sustains them by designing and practicing permanent,

sustainable cultural and agricultural systems created

in accordance with environmental knowledge.

A Historical and Conceptual Overview of the Permaculture Paradigm

Permaculture is a global grassroots development1

philosophy and sustainability movement that encom-

passes a set of ethical principles and design guidelines

and techniques for creating sustainable, permanent

culture and agriculture. Indeed, permaculture is an

agglomeration of these three words: permanent, cul-

ture, and agriculture. Permaculture models its designs

for agroecosystems, buildings, and communities on

patterns observed in nature, but perhaps more impor-

tantly, permaculture views humans and their creations

and activities as part of the natural world. Rather than

focusing on human creations—agroecosystems, build-

ings, and communities—permaculture emphasizes

the interconnections among these creations, humans,

and the natural world. Permaculturists believe that

this focus on interconnections is the best way to create

systems that function in a sustainable manner. Perma-

culture is an eclectic and adaptive approach that

emphasizes local and bioregional perspective and

practice. At the same time, it is informed by a global

view, maintains a strong tradition of technology and

knowledge transfer across diverse areas and cultural

traditions, and is fundamentally based on empirical

observation and experimentation.

These foundations came into being in the 1970s

when it became increasingly clear that the prevailing

model of development was not creating ecologically

sound, economically prosperous communities and was,

to the contrary, actively destroying such communities.

The conceptual and practical rubric for permaculture

was initially developed in Australia by Bill Mollison

and David Holmgren beginning in 1974. In Mollison’s

words, they ‘‘jointly evolved a framework for a

sustainable agricultural system based on a multi-crop

of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs..., fungi, and root

systems, for which I coined the word ‘permaculture.’

We spent a lot of time working out the principles

of permaculture and building a species-rich garden’’

(1991:preface). The result was the publication in 1978

of a detailed volume entitled Permaculture One (Molli-

son and Holmgren 1978), a work that still stands as a

permaculturalist’s bible.

The academic response to Mollison and Holm-

gren’s work was mixed, but largely negative; the

disciplinary specialization of the academy was not

prepared for the holistic approach that they offered,

even in the face of the emerging and increasingly ac-

knowledged socio-environmental crisis. The academic

world would have to wait some 20 years before

interdisciplinary work became a dominant research

paradigm—permaculture was way ahead of its time.

Mollison’s words again: ‘‘The professional community

was outraged, because we were combining architec-

ture with biology, agriculture with forestry, and

forestry with animal husbandry, so that almost every-

body who considered themselves to be a specialist

felt a bit offended’’ (Mollison 1991:preface). Similarly,

Holmgren notes that ‘‘permaculture was conceived

within academia. Many who are involved in large-

scale agriculture and land use policy saw it as theo-

retical, utopian and impractical because it was difficult

to apply within the prevailing social, market and

policy environment’’ (Holmgren 2002:xxii). Although

permaculture has been taken seriously by some aca-

demics, resulting in occasional sporadic publications

over the years (e.g., Jungt 1985; Kennedy 1991; Strange

1984a, b), it has largely been ignored. This is par-

ticularly the case in anthropology, where little or no

literature exists.

However, the public reaction was quite different;

small-scale agriculturalists especially gravitated toward

Culture & Agriculture 49 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

Mollison and Holmgren’s ideas as they sought a more

ecologically sound approach to food production. In

the late 1970s, Mollison resigned from his university

post and committed himself full time to experimenting

with teaching and promoting permaculture design. By

1981, Mollison had garnered a Right Livelihood

Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) and had graduated

an initial group of people from a standardized per-

maculture design course that he taught in Australia.

These graduates moved on to teach others, initiating a

pattern that continues to this day that has resulted in

at least 100,000 trained permaculture practitioners

throughout the world (Holmgren 2002).

The permaculture movement today is represented

by an eclectic network of local practitioners and

demonstration centers and by a number of publica-

tions such as Permaculture Activist magazine. Semi-

structured permaculture design certification courses

are offered throughout the world based on a curric-

ulum that was codified in 1984 (Holmgren 2002).

These courses are often hands-on events that take

place at permaculture experimentation and demon-

stration sites such as Earthaven Ecovillage, sites

created by people who can often trace their perma-

culture genealogy back to Bill Mollison and David

Holmgren. People who participate in these courses

often find them ‘‘life-changing’’ and go on to establish

their own permaculture experiments and demon-

stration centers. The semi-formalized structure of

permaculture certification has created some concerns

regarding lack of standardization. However, the flex-

ibility inherent in this horizontal approach is valued

because it allows the core of the permaculture rubric to

be adapted to widely varying cultural and ecological

contexts. According to Holmgren, permaculture is

represented by ‘‘a worldwide network and movement

of individuals and groups who are working in both

rich and poor countries on all continents to demon-

strate and spread permaculture design solutions.

Largely unsupported by government or business,

these people are contributing to a more sustainable

future by reorganizing their lives and work around

permaculture design principles’’ (Holmgren 2002:xx).

While Mollison, now in his eighties, has become less

active in the movement, Holmgren continues to promote

permaculture as a powerful, common-sense approach to

sustainability and an antidote to ‘‘the prevailing indus-

trial culture’’ (Holmgren 2002). In his recent book,

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainabil-

ity, Holmgren defines permaculture as follows:

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic

the patterns and relationships found in nature,

while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and

energy for the provision of local needs. People,

their buildings and the ways they organise them-

selves are central to permaculture . . . It draws

together the diverse ideas, skills and ways of liv-

ing which need to be rediscovered and developed

in order to empower us to move from being

dependent consumers to becoming responsible

and productive citizens. [Holmgren 2002:xix]

Holmgren’s book emphasizes both the ethical

philosophy and the design principles that together

comprise the permaculture rubric.

Permaculture begins with a set of ethical princi-

ples that are based on some fundamental assumptions.

‘‘The environmental crisis is real and of a magnitude

that will certainly transform modern global industrial

society beyond recognition. In the process, the well-

being and even survival of the world’s expanding

population is directly threatened’’ (Holmgren 2002:

xv). In addition, ‘‘the inevitable depletion of fossil

fuels within a few generations will see a return to the

general patterns observable in nature and preindus-

trial societies dependent on renewable energy and

resources’’ (Holmgren 2002:xvi). With these assump-

tions in mind, permaculture seeks to enable people to

become more self-reliant and, in the process, to relieve

the social injustices and ecological degradation created

by the global political economy. In this aim, perma-

culture’s critique of the modern, Western, indus-

trialized political economy and culture is clear.

The fact is that our own comfort is based on the

rape of planetary wealth, depriving other people

(and future generations) of their own local re-

sources. Our own ‘‘hard work’’ and the so-called

‘‘creativity’’ of our economy and ‘‘fairness’’ of our

system of government are all secondary factors

in creating our privilege. Once we understand the

massive structural inequities between rich and

poor nations, urban and rural communities and

human resources and natural resources, the em-

phasis on providing for one’s own needs is seen in

a different light. As we reduce our dependence on the

global economy and replace it with household and local

economies, we reduce the demand that drives current

inequities. Thus ‘‘look after yourself first’’ is not an

invitation to greed but a challenge to grow up through

Culture & Agriculture 50 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

self-reliance and personal responsibility. [Holmgren

2002:7, emphasis added]

At a fundamental level, permaculture holds that

‘‘the process of providing for people’s needs within

ecological limits requires a cultural revolution’’

(Holmgren 2002:xxv).

Based on this cultural critique and utopian vision,

permaculture combines insights gleaned from tradi-

tional ecological knowledge and modern scientific

knowledge into designs for sustainable human settle-

ments and production systems. As mentioned before,

the core of the permaculture paradigm consists of a

basic ethical philosophy and a set of design principles

or guidelines. Permaculture’s three ethical principles

are basic and fundamental: (1) care for the earth, (2)

care for people, and (3) set limits to consumption

and reproduction and redistribute surplus (Holmgren

2002). These ethical principles are grounded in the

assumptions discussed above and provide a perma-

cultural foundation for designing and enacting a more

just, equitable, and sustainable world.

Permaculture’s design principles, initially presented

in Mollison (1991) and recapitulated in Holmgren

(2002), are grounded in the science of ecology, and

more particularly in systems ecology, landscape geog-

raphy, and ethnobiology (Holmgren 2002). The overall

aim of these design principles is to develop closed-loop,

symbiotic, self-sustaining human habitats and produc-

tion systems that do not result in ecological degradation

or social injustice. Although the design of such systems

is necessarily dependent on the particular local context,

the permaculture rubric provides general guidelines for

considering environmental variables and patterns in

designing buildings, home gardens, orchards, farms,

livestock operations, aquaculture systems and commu-

nity, and urban areas (Mollison 1991).

While we do not have space here for an extensive

discussion of all 12 permaculture design principles,

we provide an example of each principle in action

at Earthaven and refer the reader to publications

such as Permaculture Activist and to the published

work of Mollison and Holmgren (Holmgren 1996,

2002; Mollison 1988, 1991; Mollison and Holmgren

1978;) for further elaboration. Permaculturalists

believe that these principles provide a framework

for situating humans in nature as we seek a sus-

tainable development strategy. This framework is a

foundation for experimentation in places like Eartha-

ven, where an adaptive management approach is

leading to the creation of an increasingly self-reliant


Permaculture Principles and Practice at Earthhaven

(1) Observe and Interact: Earthaven’s founders

spent over a year observing their property,

becoming familiar with the flows of energy—

wind, solar, and water—across the landscape,

before they began developing the ecovillage.

This process continues to this day as they

recognize and learn from their mistakes and

seek to more fully integrate their human

community into the natural community of

their property and bioregion.

(2) Catch and Store Energy: Renewable energy

systems are the most obvious example of this

principle in practice at Earthaven. From pho-

tovoltaic solar arrays to their micro-hydro

generating station, Earthaven’s members

capture and store readily available energy.

The same could also be said of the gravity-

fed water distribution system that uses the

force of gravity rather than fossil fuel-pow-

ered pumps to deliver water to households

and other facilities throughout the ecovillage.

(3) Obtain a Yield: Earthaven manifests this prin-

ciple on a very local scale. They have a long-

term, ecologically sensitive forest manage-

ment plan for their property under which

they harvest wood and use it in the con-

struction of their own houses. A variety of agro-

ecological production systems are also being

developed so that Earthaven’s members can

begin to provide for their own food needs.

(4) Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback: Re-

ferring back to principle one above, Eartha-

ven’s members are constantly involved in

reevaluating what they have done in terms

of the physical development of their land.

Regular meetings of the strategic planning

committee provide opportunities to change

course or choose another development strat-

egy that seems more appropriate based on

recent experience. For instance, Earthaven

has chosen to stop allowing the development

of outlying neighborhoods until the center

of their community has become more fully

functional, recognizing that this pattern

had led to the fragmentation of their social

Culture & Agriculture 51 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

community because they had subconsciously

copied the unsustainable suburban model in

which most of them were raised.

(5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services:

Again, the obvious manifestation of this

principle is Earthaven’s renewable energy

systems, primarily photovoltaic solar and

micro-hydro. However, this principle is also

apparent in Earthaven’s emphasis on com-

posting food scraps and human waste for use

as future fertilizers, completing a more

closed-loop nutrient cycle.

(6) Produce No Waste: The emphasis on compost

in principle five above is an excellent illus-

tration of this principle in action at Eartha-

ven. However, Earthaven has taken this a

step further in terms of putting society’s

waste to good use. For example, a large

house at Earthaven that often serves as a bed

and breakfast for visitors was constructed

using parts from a dismantled bridge and

frozen fruit juice concentrate shipping pallets

that were destined for the local landfill.

(7) Design from Patterns to Details: A pattern that

is evident anywhere on Earth is the sun’s cy-

cle throughout the year and many cultures

have oriented their architecture around this

cycle. Earthaven requires all of its buildings

to be built using a passive solar orientation;

that is they are designed to absorb the sun’s

rays when it is low in the southern sky dur-

ing the winter, providing natural renewable

heat for the home, and to reflect sunlight

during the hotter months. However, this has

not led to an orthodoxy of building style;

rather each building, while being oriented for

passive solar gain, is designed uniquely for

its particular site in the landscape and its

particular occupants.

(8) Integrate Rather Than Segregate: Industrial

agricultural systems are characterized by

large-scale fields of monocrops. Earthaven’s

approach is to use a variety of inter- and

multi-cropping methods to enhance pest con-

trol and soil regeneration. Beyond that,

Earthaven has moved toward a reintegration

of natural and agricultural systems through

the creation of a ‘‘forest garden’’ where food

crops are interspersed with existing, partially

harvested forest.

(9) Use Small and Slow Solutions: Earthaven itself

is a small and slow solution. It has taken

15 years to put in basic, minimal infrastruc-

ture, establish a system of communal self-

governance, build a few dozen buildings,

and begin small-scale food production. This

stands in contrast to the rapidity of suburban

construction, suggesting that small and slow

approaches are inherently more sustainable

and more fulfilling.

(10) Use and Value Diversity: Many of Earthaven’s

members know their landscape intimately.

During Lockyer’s fieldwork at Earthaven,

there was a group of young men who would

regularly go out for ‘‘plant walks’’ during

which they would identify as many different

species as they could. On one particular

occasion, they returned with specimens of

over 20 types of edible mushrooms. This

reflects a wider pattern at Earthaven whereby

ecovillage members know how to identify

and use the biological diversity that exists on

their property.

(11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal: Many

of Earthaven’s buildings are built on slopes

that mainstream builders would consider

marginally appropriate. However, Earth-

aveners have chosen to turn this problem

into an opportunity, taking advantage of nat-

ural features such as south-facing slopes

to build passive solar-oriented houses. With

regard to edges, many of Earthaven’s farmers

use the edges of their fields (where there are

defined fields) to plant flowers that

are simultaneously esthetically pleasing and

act as a form of pest control or edible plants

and trees such as wineberries (Rubus phoeni-

colasius) or hazelnuts (Corylus avellana).

(12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change: One of

the biggest changes that has taken place at

Earthaven is an influx of younger members

of little financial means. Earthaven’s foun-

ders were mostly older and many of them

had significant financial resources. Under

the original membership process, buying into

the community required a significant finan-

cial investment. When these younger, poorer

people began arriving in higher numbers,

Earthaven’s members made a consensus

decision to open up a ‘‘sweat equity track’’

Culture & Agriculture 52 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

to membership and landholding. This enabled

people of lesser financial means to pay their

membership and site lease fees by contribut-

ing labor to community agricultural projects,

thus enabling a larger, more diverse member-

ship and simultaneously moving Earthaven’s

much desired agro-ecosystems forward.

Permaculture Elsewhere As a result of the growth of the permaculture net-

work, permaculture principles are increasingly being

employed by individuals, communities—intentional

and otherwise—and even local and national govern-

ments (Cuba, Vietnam, Brazil) in the development

of more just, equitable, and sustainable human habi-

tations, communities, and agricultural production

systems. The permaculture paradigm represents one

path among many that should be explored as society

seeks to address impending socio-environmental cri-

ses. As environmental anthropologists, we recognize

that current models of development are on an unsus-

tainable trajectory and we advocate for more socially

just and ecologically sustainable forms of develop-

ment. However, too often our critiques of current

approaches to development are unaccompanied by

viable solutions, especially solutions that recognize

that we in the Global North must take responsibility

for our contributions to contemporary socio-environ-

mental problems. One reason for this is that sug-

gesting such solutions entails a political agenda that

clashes with our role as supposedly dispassionate sci-

entific researchers. One way around this conundrum is

the strategic choice of research foci. As social scientists

we can choose to focus our methods and theoretical

frameworks on people who have taken the politically

active step of saying ‘‘no’’ to current development

hegemonies and experimenting with alternative de-

velopment strategies.

We hold that the permaculture movement acts as

a sort of a natural laboratory wherein potentially

sustainable solutions are experimented with. Further,

we believe that by engaging with this movement, we

can create a powerful dialectic between anthropolog-

ical theory and practice on the one hand and cultural

critique in action for sustainability on the other.

Engaging in this dialectic, we seek to help construct

an anthropology that can productively contribute to an

understanding not only of how the world is and how

it got that way but also of how the world could be and

how we can get there.

Engaging Permaculture: Areas of Theoretical and Applied Compatibility

There are numerous promising theoretical and ap-

plied perspectives within environmental anthropology

that present potential cross-fertilization opportunities

with permaculture. We identify those perspectives and

give some preliminary suggestions for collaboration

before concluding with suggestions for how this sort

of collaboration can provide a direction for anthropol-

ogy. Examples and discussion are also presented that

make a case for narrowing the gap between sustain-

ability practices and academic ideals.

Several research programs in environmental anthro-

pology offer excellent opportunities for permaculture-

based scholarship and practice. Although certainly not

limited to these approaches alone, this section will focus

on cultural ecology, agricultural anthropology, historical

ecology, ethnoecology, and political ecology as particu-

larly fruitful avenues for engaging permaculture.

Cultural ecologists have focused their research on

three fundamental questions: (1) How does [a certain

cultural group] make a living? (2) How do they

organize themselves to make that living? and (3) How

do they rationalize the way they make that living?

Although cultural ecology is no longer a dominant

approach within anthropology (it is still a major

research strategy in geography), its focus on environ-

mental adaptations of different groups of people in

different places of the globe from the 1950s to the

1980s produced an impressive amount of empirical

data (e.g., Bennett 1969; Netting 1968, 1981, 1993).

Ethnographic data, particularly with respect to small-

holder agriculture, are exactly the type of empirical

information that permaculturalists can use in their

applied approach to bioregionally sustainable adapta-

tions. Whether it be Chinese smallholder agricultural

strategies spanning thousands of years (Netting 1993),

Andean, Alpine, and Himalayan adaptations to alpine

mountainous areas of vertical zonation (Rhoades and

Thompson 1975), or the complex adaptive strategies of

different social groups to the Canadian Plains (Bennett

1969), cultural ecologists have outlined in substantial

detail how people have managed to survive in ways

that inform us about sustainability. A cultural ecology

database made available for anthropologists engaged

in permaculture research and application as well as to

permaculture practitioners would be of immense prac-

tical value. This database has the potential to ground

permaculture projects and can give cultural ecologists

Culture & Agriculture 53 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

a productive new framework in which to apply and

interpret their research.

Agricultural anthropology, a relevant subdisci-

pline that has drawn on cultural ecology, has

excellent potential for contributing to the understand-

ing and improvement of permaculture and vice versa.

It has been prominent in international agriculture and

development circles and has contributed to the emer-

gence of horizontal and participatory development

approaches such as ‘‘farmer back to farmer’’ (Rhoades

and Booth 1982) and ‘‘farmer first’’ (Chambers et al.

1989). Long-term experimentation in agricultural an-

thropology with more egalitarian research relation-

ships provides methodologies that can be applied in

permaculture settings (Rhoades, 1984). Sustainable and

alternative agriculture is also a current major research

focus for agricultural anthropologists. Permaculture,

with its emphasis on designing sustainable agroeco-

systems, has been understudied but has much to

add to the knowledge and practice of agricultural

anthropology, particularly with regard to creating a

multilayered perennial polyculture agriculture.

The merging of historical ecology with permacul-

ture can provide practitioners with long-term data

on how human–environment interactions have taken

place in specific places. A central concept used to

organize historical ecology approaches to human

behavior and agency in the environment is landscape,

a term that has is its origins in historical geography.

Landscape is also the multiscale domain that perma-

culture takes as its field of operation (Mollison 1988).

Therefore, historical ecology and permaculture are

theoretically aligned on at least one basic level. Both

permaculture and historical ecology have a shared

interest in the applied realm, as applied historical

ecologists are cognizant of their role in supplying

baseline data related to time depth and traditional

knowledge that can be used to restore past landscapes

(Baleé 2006; Swetnam et al. 1999). Similarly, per-

maculturists seek to improve the sustainability of

present landscapes through various design principles.

A major finding within historical ecology is that

human cultures do not always reduce environmental

landscapes into barren wastelands of low diversity.

Rather, human communities often heighten species

diversity in local environments through ongoing re-

source management strategies that increase landscape

heterogeneity—particularly local and indigenous

gardening and agroforestry practices (Baleé 2006;

Fairhead and Leach 1996). Species increases through

time, by human intervention in specific landscapes, is

consistent with permaculture design principles, which

seek to maximize species diversity and stability

to provide for basic human needs (Mollison 1988).

Permaculturalists can take information gleaned from

historical ecology to weigh their design options,

particularly when deciding whether or not certain

architectural plans, agroecological designs, or plant

species are contextually appropriate. In short, historical

ecology offers data that can help applied permacultura-

lists learn from the past, while permaculturalists can

provide historical ecologists unique and diverse natural

laboratory settings to see how their findings are applied

to landscape design.

Ethnoecology is another subfield that offers op-

portunity for collaboration with permaculture. In the

past 60 years, ethnoecological research has produced

a wealth of studies featuring indigenous ecological

knowledge systems. This diverse variety of ethnoeco-

logical studies can help permaculturalists to garner

ideas about the application of their own and borrowed

technologies and practices. Furthermore, the study

of indigenous classification systems and behaviors

(Berlin 1992; Ellen 2005, 1993) can help permaculture

practitioners challenge their own conceptualizations

of the biological world from perspectives outside of

the western tradition. Anthropological challenges and

debates surrounding the appropriation of indigenous

materials and intellectual property rights can also help

to insure that cultural borrowing is appropriately

contextualized, acknowledged, left alone if needed,

traded, or compensated for (Agrawal 2002; Cleveland

and Murray 1997; Dewalt 1994; Sillitoe 1998, 2006).

Ethnoecologists can also study permaculture sites as

dynamic cultural arenas and natural laboratories,

where people in various bioregions across the world

are incorporating, classifying, reclassifying, and hybrid-

izing locally appropriate technologies and biological

knowledge. This seems to be an important step for

ethnoecology to contribute on-the-ground solutions

toward sustainability.

Political ecology has brought issues of political

economy and power to the forefront of ecological

approaches that have been apolitical in their tradi-

tional forms (Robbins 2004). Approaches such as

world systems theory (Wallerstein 1974) and posts-

tructuralism (Escobar 1999) point out how limited

access to and control over resources—combined with

the essentializing tendencies of ‘‘otherness’’—tend to

disempower individuals, communities, and the envi-

Culture & Agriculture 54 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

ronments in which they dwell. Analysis has centered

largely on the relationship of governmental and cor-

porate power/capital hegemonies in the Global North

to nations and communities on the periphery of the

capitalist world economy, particularly in the Global

South. The political ecology approach articulates well

with permaculture ethics and cultural critique that

encourage modern individuals to take responsibility

for their own actions, reduce their consumption and

waste, and live a more simple and ecological lifestyle,

thereby enacting a more democratic and fair division

of and access to the world’s environmental resources

(Holmgren 2002). Both permaculture and many prom-

inent strains of political ecology are engaged in a

critique of current globalization trends emerging from

a capitalism whose political power is centered in the

Global North. Permaculture offers political ecology the

opportunity to study how citizens, particularly in the

Global North, are providing lifestyle and community

changes to meet the sustainability challenge and in-

herent inequalities in the current global economic



Fictional Scenario 1:

An environmental anthropologist gets up in the morn-

ing, takes his customary 20-minute hot shower, throws on

his best five hundred dollar suit (one of over 25 suits he has

accumulated over the years), walks out his two-story sub-

urban house and jumps in his SUV, quickly navigating the

30-minute drive through rush hour to take care of a few

things in his university office. After packing his briefcase

with the necessary papers, he jumps back in the SUV and

makes the hour long trek to the nearest regional airport. As

usual, breakfast is eaten on the run through a McDonalds

drive-thru with an order of a bacon, egg, and cheese

mcmuffin, a hashbrown, and a cup of coffee. NPR plays on

the radio on the way to the airport which gives him short

snippets of global events. This will be the last of 18 round-

trip flights he has makes this year. Several hours later the

plane touches down in Washington, DC. Outside the ter-

minal he catches the first taxi ride available and tells the cab

driver from Nigeria to take him directly to the five-star hotel

where the American Anthropology Association Meetings

will take place. By the time he and several thousand other

anthropologists complete their weekend trips, they will

probably have consumed more resources than many of the

communities that they study will use in a year.

Fictional Scenario 2:

An environmental anthropologist gets up in the morn-

ing, takes her five-minute solar hot water shower, and puts

on her just-casual-enough/just-business-enough hemp/or-

ganic cotton sweater that was made by the homespun

seamstress in the ecovillage. She cooks a quick pot of oatmeal

(purchased in a bulk order from the village co-op) and checks

email on her solar powered laptop. The fair trade coffee is

done just in time and she pours it into her trusty to go mug

and hops out the front door of her passive solar cob house.

She walks past several other residences (one post-and-beam

passive solar and the other cordwood construction, both

built by the ecovillage forestry co-op) and then out through

the extensive village gardens and orchards. She swipes a

limbertwig apple from a nearby tree and picks a few kale and

mustard greens to chew on. She waves to two of her grad-

uate students who are collecting data for their applied

research projects as she gets in the community hybrid SUV

that she has reserved for her drive to Washington, DC. She

picks up several of her colleagues at the department and

within 30 minutes they are on the road. It is a four and half

hour drive, but within the eight hour radius of a pact they

have made with each other for their one conference presen-

tation a year. This may not be the best way to get ahead in

their profession, but it sure does make their life less hectic

and keep their ecological footprint down. A Global Ecovil-

lages compilation CD plays in the background as they head

to the AAA meetings. They had heard that this year the

anthropology and environment section of the AAA had

made some real progress in reducing the waste produced by

the annual meeting and each of them was curious to see

what had been done.

These two fictional scenarios depict two opposite

extremes of a continuum and serve to illustrate a

point. We all probably know at least someone who (at

least loosely) fits the description of fictional scenario 1.

It is fairly unlikely that we know anyone who fits sce-

nario 2 (although not completely out of the realm of

possibility), even if we may know several anthropol-

ogists who would ideally live in such a way. Most of

us probably fit somewhere in between these extremes,

navigating the constraints of our personal and profes-

sional lives to try and be as minimally wasteful as we

can. Perhaps a minority of anthropologists do not care

how much they consume and are explicit about their

wasteful choices. We will not judge them here and it

certainly does not mean they cannot produce excellent

research and theory. But our call for a dialogue be-

tween anthropology and permaculture will probably

be of much more use to those who are interested

Culture & Agriculture 55 Volume 30, Numbers 1 and 2 2008

in the greening of our profession and to some extent

‘‘practicing what they preach.’’ Taking responsibility

for our own personal consumption patterns and dem-

onstrating to others in our consumption-oriented cul-

ture that an environmentally sustainable future is a

very real alternative development option is a major

promise of the engagement between permaculture and

environmental anthropology. It has the potential to

bring us down to earth onto a more level playing field

with the subjects of our research as well.

Permaculture, at present, is not a significant

approach in the international agriculture centers

(CGIAR) and other international development arenas

such as the World Bank. We propose that it should

probably remain so because permaculture provides an

alternative, bioregionally organized, horizontal net-

work of practitioners, ecovillages, and research sites

that we feel would only suffer in the context of the

current top-down (despite significant strides made to-

ward more participatory bottom-up approaches) inter-

national development approach. Anthropologists who

want to work in sustainable development and agri-

culture outside of the CGIAR and other such main-

stream development arenas may find permaculture

a suitable venue. The significant theoretical insights,

applied experience, and grant-writing skills of anthro-

pologists would almost certainly be a welcome addition

to the international permaculture network. Decades of

anthropological insights gained from the fields of po-

litical ecology and ethnoecology can help to caution

permaculturists against potentially unethical cultural

borrowings by bringing to light current debates con-

cerning indigenous environmental knowledge (IEK)

(Cleveland and Murray 1997; Sillitoe 1998). Conversely,

permaculture in practice potentially gives anthropolo-

gists an on-the-ground forum for working out the often

controversial, theoretical, and ethical implications of

IEK in a more decentralized, grassroots fashion.

Applied projects led by anthropologists have

already been instrumental in promoting sustainable

agriculture on-campus (Barlett and Chase 2004) and in

local U.S. communities (Andreatta 2005). Permacul-

ture projects led or participated in by anthropologists

hold a lot of promise for further research that

goes beyond the current sustainability framework. In

the future, it may be possible for anthropologists to

walk out their front door and enter the (eco) village

instead of having to fly halfway around the world to

get there. When that happens, it may then be possible

to speak of a true ‘‘global village’’ and reach out in

more democratic ways to those with whom we con-

duct research.


1. Development is used here for lack of a better word. The general idea of development—the improvement of the hu- man condition—retains its value. However, development has become synonymous with a certain kind of develop- ment, one based on distinctly Euro-American, socio-cultural, and political economic models and one driven by the dic- tates of global capital. Most permaculturalists would undoubtedly balk at the cultural baggage carried by the concept of development; however, we do not have space to debate the viability of the term here.

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