Thursday, February 20, 2014

Permaculture: From Farm to Living in the World

By Kyle Van Dyke

According to Andrew Faust, a trainer and educator in the practice of permaculture, permaculture is a “pathway beyond sustainability.” Speaking at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ on Thursday, February 6, the well-spoken, Quaker-raised and prophetic Faust launched into an information-rich, intensive explanation of the basics of permaculture.

More than just about sustaining our current systems in the future, and not limited to just gardening or farming with which the term is often associated, Andrew explained that permaculture is about designing a world we want to live in that is in harmony with the Earth's natural systems. It's about “embracing a life that we want to see instead of running away from what we don't want to see.”

He urged us to ask ourselves more challenging questions about what we really want in life, and how that contrasts with what our lives are actually like right now. Currently, the world that previous generations have designed and built for us is not making the people of the Western world any happier, according to the Gross National Happiness index. Although we are still better off than other nations in economic terms, our life satisfaction has actually decreased over time.

Think you can survive alone on your self-sufficient organic farm in the middle of nowhere? Andrew Faust dismisses the notion. After building his own homestead in West Virginia, including a 1,600 square foot strawbale house, and living there for eight years, he realized he couldn't survive there on his own. The air pollution from a nearby coal-fired power plant would contaminate the rainwater falling from the clouds. In other similar ways, constructing your own “fiefdom,” Andrew says, just will not work.

But would you really want it to work, anyway? Humans are social animals. If you shut out the world and are only concerned about your own short-term survival, what's the point? Even if it was possible, I doubt living a life on a lonely farm would be a satisfying existence. Nor would living in an isolated eco-village. This will not solve the big problems facing the world today. And besides, what are you going to do? Shut the whole world out when times get tough? Turn away your community's, your state's, your nation's, your world's hungry and poor?

Andrew urges that we have to “engage the world.” In other words, we have to actually work with our neighbors, local governments, businesses, non-profits, and change society for the better. Not just pick a spot where you're going to have your own, individual organic farm, isolated from the world.

One of the most important points he makes, in stark contrast to modern planning, is to “let the landscape tell you where to put your elements,” such as farms, railroads, and homes. The idea is that nature already provides you with a design that is sensible in terms of long-range planning and minimal energy usage. The key is to ask nature, “what would be best to place here and how would it be best to build it, given the topography, sunlight, geology, proximity to a water source, locally available resources, etc.,” rather than, “what can I impose and build here, thereby covering up and ignoring the original 'organic design' via complex machinery, while also ignoring the significant amount of fossil-fuel dependent energy required to maintain it over the long-term?”

Look around your neighborhood. Look at it with Google Earth. Take a walk. What aspects of your neighborhood seem “imposed,” arising only from the human will to place it there? What aspects of your neighborhood seem “organic,” arising from humans' guidance and harmony with nature's will?

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