A Roadmap to Redesigning Civilization

Redesigning Civilization – with Permaculture

by Toby Hemenway (2013)

Film Review

Toby Hemenway defines permaculture as a branch of ecological design that employs natural ecosystems as a model. Although most permaculture design relates to food production, its principles can be applied to the management of all human needs, including water, shelter, waste, energy, finance, culture/spirituality and even sports and security.

Permaculture-based food production focuses on returning to a “horticultural” method of food production with “food forests” and other self-maintained food systems, as opposed to our current mechanized, open field method of food production. Permaculture relies on ecologically designed gardens, rather than open fields, and mixed crops, rather than monoculture. It also employs the continuous plant succession typical of natural ecosystems, rather than starting with a clear cut every year.

For me, the most interesting part of the film is Hemenway’s discussion of archeological evidence that civilization preceded the Agricultural Revolution (around 10,000 BC). This contradicts the prevailing belief that the agricultural made civilization possible by creating a food surplus. It’s been argued for more than a century that the creation of a food surplus through open field agriculture freed up non-farmers to specialize in higher pursuits, such as art, science, music, religion, and literature.

According to Hemenway, more recent archeological evidence suggests that civilization came first. This includes Venus figurines which dating from 40,000 years ago, religious symbols from 30,000 years ago, evidence of horticulture (plant tending) 30,000 years ago and evidence of irrigation 20,000 years ago.

He makes reference to an archeological site in Gokikli Tepi Turkey from 14,000 years ago suggestive of routine spiritual gatherings of hundreds of people. Feeding large crowds poses a specific technological challenge.

Hemenway believes these large gatherings may have been the impetus for large scale open field cultivation. “Agriculture” (from “ager” meaning field) made it possible to produce large amounts of grain which, unlike other foods, can be stored for long periods.

Hemenway goes on to discuss some of the immediate drawbacks of grain-based agriculture (based again on archeological evidence):

  1. Overpopulation, famine, and warfare – agriculture immediately caused a population boom, as grains are the one of the easiest foods to convert to calories. They increase female fertility, as well as allowing for early weaning (breast feeding inhibits ovulation). This population boom made settlements more susceptible both to conquest from neighboring tribes and famine due to failed harvests.
  2. Shorter life span and poorer health – following the introduction of agriculture, people tended to be shorter, suffer from more degenerative disease, and have shorter life spans (by about 20-30%). They also became subject to deadly viral epidemics (such as small pox) transmitted from domesticated animals.
  3. Less leisure time – following the introduction of agriculture, people had to work 60+ hour weeks just to survive. This was in part due to the need to support a priesthood, nobility, and military to protect the grain surplus. A hunter gatherer can generally collect sufficient food in four hours to last him a week.
  4. Agriculture created a fear of nature (of insects, weeds, wilderness, wild animals, and wild people) and a mindset in which people came to see themselves as separate, rather than part of nature.

Hemenway goes on to outline the basic permaculture design principles, with specific examples of their application to all aspects of sustainable living:

  • Catching, storing, and reusing energy and materials, essentially eliminating the concept of waste.
  • Becoming pattern literate – learning to observe ecosystems to see how a small change can have a big effect.
  • Focusing on community and regional self-reliance rather than individual self-sufficiency.

Drawing on real-life examples, the film finishes with recommendations of what viewers can do to facilitate the transition to a “permaculture” lifestyle in their own communities.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

How Permaculture Can Save Humanity

food forest

London Food Forest

How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilization

by Toby Hemenway (2013)

Film Review

Below is another great video on the history of horticulture by permaculturist and ecologist Toby Hemenway. Hemenway’s main premise is that agriculture – even non-industrial agriculture – is unsustainable. He approaches the issue from an anthropological perspective, by examining prehistoric cultures that became extinct as a direct result of transitioning from horticulture to agriculture.

Hemenway defines horticulture as food production using small garden and food forests that incorporate and support existing ecosystems. Agriculture, in contrast, destroys ecosystems to create vast clear cuts dedicated to single crops. The archeological record reveals that agriculture first developed in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) around 10,000 BC. At the time it was lush forest and bush. However after 3,000 of artificial irrigation, the soil became too salty to support life. The land, which became a desert, still hasn’t recovered. The same thing happened in ancient Egypt and Greece.

Archeological evidence reveals that all agricultural civilizations follow a typical pattern of soil depletion after an average of 1,000 years. Then they either die out or moving to new land via conquest. According to Hemenway, the Oil Age was a great boon to our current agricultural civilization. Farm machinery and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides provided an immense burst in world food production. Unfortunately this only hastened soil degradation. At the same time a steep price increase (related to oil a natural gas scarcity) and made them unavailable for a growing number of farmers, especially in the developing world.

Hemenway also asserts that the prehistoric importance of horticulture has been greatly underestimated owing to three myths widely promulgated over the last two hundred years.

Myth one: food surpluses produced by agriculture are essential to produce the leisure time and specialization required for culture to flourish.

New archaeological evidence reveals human beings engaged in cultural activities such as basket weaving, art, and music for hundreds of years prior to the development of agriculture.

Myth two: horticulture was merely a brief transition between hunter gather and agricultural societies.

Fossil and other evidence suggests that Native Americans planted and maintained most of the East Coast, Mississippi, and Amazon as food forests for more than four thousand years before Europeans destroyed their horticultural societies.

Myth three (thanks to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): horticultural cultures are made up of savages who live short, nasty, brutish lives.

Anthropological and archeological evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies devote far less time to securing and producing food than farmers. The former spend an average of three hours a day harvesting a day’s worth of food for their families; whereas pre-industrial farmers spent an average of two to three days to producing one day of food. This excluded crops they sold to pay rent.

Skeletal remains suggest people in horticultural cultural societies were healthier, taller, and lived long than people in pre-industrial agricultural societies. Moreover the advent of agriculture introduced a host of degenerative diseases, including arthritis and deadly viral epidemics (influenza, small pox, measles, polio, etc) that people caught from domesticated animals.

Worst of all, the introduction of agriculture led to the advent of class society, military conquest, and famine. As Hemenway points out, war and famine are virtually unknown in hunter gatherer societies that migrate to follow their food source. Likewise it’s virtually impossible for a marauding army to steal the perennials out of a food forest.

Permaculture to the Rescue

Hemenway views our current food production system as a major culprit in the current ecological and resource crisis the planet faces (e.g. climate change, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and fossil fuel, fresh water and topsoil depletion). He estimates that without drastic change, our species will survive another fifty years at most. If, however, human species could navigate a successful return to a horticultural society, they could potential persist for millennia.

He sees the widespread adoption of permaculture as a first step in a return to horticulture. Permaculture is an 80 year old branch of ecological design that produces sustainable buildings and self-maintained food production systems by modeling them on natural ecosystems. The movement already has several million adherents worldwide, through the Transition Town and comparable relocalization movements.

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc