Permaculture is not only sustainable, it’s regenerative, and can heal the damage caused by conventional agriculture.
When someone claimed to have a “sustainable” farm, the late biologist and permaculture professor Toby Hemenway liked to ask them how long their farm had been around?
“500 years? 5000? A million?”
Because hardly anyone could answer more than a hundred, Hemenway started to realize most of us have no idea what “sustainable” means.
In this video lecture, he explains why there is no such thing as sustainable agriculture and why permaculture has to be the future of food if there’s going to be a future for humans at all.
Humans sustained themselves as hunter-gatherers for at least a million years. We’ve only been “sustaining” ourselves through agriculture for less than 1 percent of human history, and we haven’t been doing a very good job of it, Hemenway said in the lecture at Duke University.
Dozens of civilizations have collapsed as a result of agriculture. And in just 10,000 years, the practice has converted nearly two thirds of the land on Earth into desert, causing global warming and the 6th mass extinction crisis.
The Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia turned into desert after only 2000-3000 years of agriculture and still hasn’t recovered 7000 years later, Hemenway said.
“The Ancient Greeks described forests and … green, lush landscape everywhere,” he added. “It only took agriculture about 500 years to destroy it. Then they had to expand their empire to look for fertile soil.”
In the infamous American Dust Bowl, we lost all of our topsoil in the Great Plains after about only a century of agriculture.
“We’ve managed to power ourselves out of this through oil, which allowed us to rebuild some of the soil,” Hemenway said. “But in general the world over … agriculture is not sustainable.”
Why does agriculture destroy land?
The main reason agriculture destroys the land is it encourages human overpopulation, Hemenway says.
It allows you to produce more food in a smaller area, so it encourages people to have more babies. When an organism discovers an abundant calorie source, like grain, it triggers it to breed.
Also, soft food mean you can wean children younger, decreasing the interval between pregnancies.
But farmed land doesn’t continue to produce high yields forever.
Unlike in hunting and gathering, the feedback telling farmers they’ve overshot the land’s carrying capacity is delayed.
If foragers take too many deer or tubers, they get feedback from the land immediately, Hemenway said. “But with agriculture, the degradation of the ecosystem is the marker that you’re doing a good job.”
Myths of agriculture
1. Hunter-gatherers lives were “nasty, brutish and short” and our health “bloomed” when we discovered agriculture.
In Turkey, the average lifespan of foragers was 35. After agriculture it dropped to 28, Hemenway said.
Their average height dropped 4 inches.
The bones of post-agricultural peoples reveal more degenerative diseases, and, most of our epidemic diseases come from close proximity to domesticated animals… chicken pox came from chickens, small pox from cows, and measles and mumps from pigs.
2. Agriculture provided a more reliable food supply.
While it definitely provides larger quantities of food at first, surpluses are almost always followed by shortages.
Every century, from the 14th to the 18th, famine swept across Europe and reduced the population by up to 30 percent. The only reason Europeans have since avoided massive famine is colonization of faraway lands.
3. Agricultural people had more leisure and freedom
It takes foragers 3 hours to gather a week’s worth of food. Farmers need to work the land for 2 to 3 days, plus more for rent.
Because agriculture creates a storable surplus, it requires guards to protect it and governors to parcel out land. “You need accountants to measure the grain, rules to divvy it up, and punishment for people who disobey… the beginning of the police state,” Hemenway said.
Hemenway says peak oil also marks the beginning of peak agriculture, as modern agriculture is completely dependent on oil.
Scientists predicted hundreds of millions would die in the 1970s due to food shortages, but the Green Revolution enabled us to convert oil into food and created 2 billion more people.
But what happens when the oil runs out? Many ecologists predict a massive die-off of humans.
Below is an former “Green Revolution” field in India, salted from 30 years of fertilizer applications.
“This land is never coming back in our lifetime,” Hemenway said. “It’s out of commission for generations.”
Permaculture Can Save Us
Hemenway says permaculture can save humanity, but not civilization.
At its core, agriculture is essentially clear-cutting complex ecosystems that evolved over millions of years and converting them into grain fields.
Permaculture, aka horticulture, involves humans working symbiotically with the Earth to enhance the diversity and number of edible plants She has already provided.
Permaculture is not only sustainable, it’s regenerative, he says.
It’s gardening rather than farming. It’s using small hand tools like the hoe, rather than plows that turn over large quantities of soil. It’s polyculture rather than monoculture.
It encourages succession toward highly-developed ecosystems like forests. Agriculture sets this succession — from weeds to forest — backward. It’s clear-cutting every year.
Hemingway believes horticulture thrived for at least 30,000 years before agriculture dominated the planet.
Most of the the low lying areas of the United States — the East Coast, the Mississippi Valley, the California valleys — were food forests before Europeans got here, he said. The trees were loaded with walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts, beech nuts and acorns, and the rivers with “salmon so thick you couldn’t walk across.”
“The people who tended those food forests were exterminated.”
If agriculturalists hadn’t wiped them out, Hemenway believes horticulturalists could’ve thrived for hundreds of thousands of years to come.
Hemenway believes the entire Amazon rainforest is a man-made garden.The region has far more food-producing plants, nitrogen-fixing plants and timber species than it would have without the “help” of humans.
“It’s been tweaked by people for a long time so that humans can be there and have a good time there.”
If humans are going to survive, we’re gradually going to have to turn cities back into villages, Hemenway said.
This means rather than relying on food grown across the world on modern-day slave plantations, we create self-sufficient, interdependent local communities.
The goal shouldn’t be to grow all your own food on your own property, he says. Permaculture is a move away from the rugged individualism of farm life, back to community life. So ideally every garden eventually becomes a community garden.
Modern Day Permaculture Models
- Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead – a 34-year-old food forest on Orcas Island.
- The Regenerative Design Institute in Marin County, California has been tending its garden since the 1970s
- Path to Freedom – a tenth-acre lot in Pasadena, California, where gardeners produce 7000 lbs of food a year
- Depave – an organization that turns parking lots into pieces of “paradise”
- Public food forests in Seattle and Canada
- City street food forest in Portland, Oregon
“There is no scarcity in nature,” Hemenway says. “The Earth is so abundant that if you care for her, she will generate a surplus.”
For more info, check out Hemenway’s books: