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Posted on Fri, Jul 24, 2009 : 12:52 p.m.

Permaculture: Nature's definition of sustainability

By Nathan Ayers

The simplest explanation I've heard for permaculture is that it is compound word, meaning permanent-culture. Internationally acclaimed scientist David Suzuki has said that "What permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet". A quote like that deserves some attention. I first heard the term a little over a year ago, when I was introduced to the Transition Towns movement. I did some research and learned that the concept was created by Australian Bill Mollison, and there are permaculture design courses held all over the world. That was great I thought, but it still didn't explain what permaculture was or looked like. Lucky for me and Ann Arbor, Bill Wilson, founder of Midwest Permaculture was in town this past week as part of his four city lecture tour entitled "An Introduction to Permaculture".

Bill is a warm and wonderful man. The knowing glimmer he shoots across a full lecture hall makes people want to be around him. He's the kind of guy that will pull you aside and tell a hand picked joke that makes you think, and leaves you in stitches. He's also the kind of guy with information and skills that might just save humanity from ecological collapse. Carefully and compassionately wading through contentious and uncomfortable topics like peak oil and climate change, Bill is fond of saying "there are no bad people, just a bad system that we've all slipped into".

He begins the presentation by giving us some simple tenets of Permaculture. He says that fundamentally, it's all about observation, and watching nature. We humans spend a tremendous amount of energy, time, and fossil fuels trying to fight nature, attempting to make the natural world do what we want. If we just took a step back and watched how nature's systems work together, how strength and resiliency are built in, and then tried to mimic that resilience in agriculture and production, we would have an overabundance of all the food and goods we could ever need. Speaking specifically towards the definition of permaculture, Bill says that "we can't have permanent culture without permanent agriculture". As he goes on, it becomes very apparent that food is a huge part of permaculture. In fact, using the proper techinques, permaculturists can grow food just about anywhere, even the desert. It's really all about the approach. In the Permaculture system, waste becomes resources, productivity is increased, and work is minimized. Some practical examples of permaculture design are the greenhouses in Colorado that grow bananas and figs almost entirely on renewable energy. Or the organic farmer that makes a better living on 9 acres than the conventional farm with 2000. There are many examples of communities all over the world that are raising fruits and nuts in their public areas for the economic benefit of its neighborhoods. Bill gives an amazing example of one woman that has turned her lawn into a permaculture garden with over 230 varieties of useful plants. Through thoughtful planning, careful use of resources, and a respectful approach to life, permaculturists are "redesigning our lives as if caring for the planet and people mattered". And not a moment too soon. Some of the uncomfortable stats that Bill gracefully weaves into his uplifting presentation are that 1/3 of the oil consumed in the U.S is used for food production, and that quite surprisingly, the number one export in the U.S is top soil. The notions that our western model of industrialization will have unlimited room for growth, and that there will be unlimited resources for centuries to come are fallacies that permaculturists are quietly exposing. What is so special is that they are doing it in a way that is non judgemental, and allows ample room for everyone to get involved. It just feels right. As Bill says, "A main goal of permaculture design is to reverse the consumption model into a creation model." The permaculture approach has expanded to much more than sustainable food production. It extends to almost every aspect of our lives. Bill goes on to give inspiring examples of how permaculturists are designing long lasting green buildings, producing electric power, running successful people oriented businesses, and building authentic communities. The ecological processes of plants, animals, water, and nutrient cycles are integrated with human needs and technologies for food, energy, shelter, and infrastructure. "All of this", he says "is done by applying the permaculture ethic. Care of people. Care of earth. Sharing all surplus." With so much of our modern dialogue turning toward going green, alternative energy, and sustainability, very few of us have stopped to think, "what does sustainability actually look like in practice?" If you have asked yourself this question, and are still waiting on an answer, Permaculture is one of the best places to start.

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