January is the time of year when farmers begin planning for the next season. They figure out how much to grow of each crop, they figure out where in the field to plant them based on complicated crop rotation patterns, and sometimes they plan to experiment with special methods that they may have read about somewhere or learned about at a winter conference. There are so many different types of agricultural methods, so much so that mentors of mine have said that there are as many ways to farm as there are farmers (so like, over a million different ways to farm).
Today I want to focus on one main agricultural method and how it differs from all other agricultural methods. It’s so different that it’s actually not agriculture at all. The term “agriculture” refers to something very specific, and basically 99.9999% of the world’s food supply is produced via it. What I mean by this will become clear below, but I am talking about the difference between “permaculture” and “agriculture.”
Before I get into permaculture, I want to say that agriculture – no matter if it’s organic or conventional – is inherently destructive and “unnatural” (more on this word later). Cutting down forests, turning soil every year, planting equidistantly in long, straight beds that are themselves spaced equidistantly, weeding, etc – all unique characteristics of agriculture- are relatively new in the 200,000 years of human history. It emerged about 10,000 years ago simultaneously in a couple specific locations – probably modern day Iraq and northern China- and spread from there across the world over time, fundamentally changing the surface of our planet and how we interacted with the animal and plant kingdoms.
The thing about agriculture is that it’s highly efficient at producing food. Agricultural farmers, throughout history, became more and more efficient over generations to the point that they were able to produce more than they needed for their own personal consumption. This meant that not everyone had to farm. It’s no coincidence that the rise of urban living, art, and culture coincided with the rise in agricultural efficiency. This is why we have cities, because someone somewhere thousands of years ago decided to turn some soil over, probably so that they could regularly get drunk off beer. Yea, I’d do the same.
Now permaculture is something different. While I’d say that agriculture is the result of human ingenuity “working against nature,” permaculture is the result of human ingenuity more closely “mimicking nature” (whatever these terms mean – again these are problematic ways of using these words-I’m just using them here for simplicity and I’ll clarify later). This is done in a number of different ways, but I’d like to highlight just one: how long the plants live. Agriculture relies almost entirely on annuals: plants that must be replanted every year. They don’t live long enough for their roots to develop; this means they can’t reach moisture and nutrients located deep in the soil, which further means that they have to be regularly irrigated and fertilized with external inputs. Then they are harvested, leaving bare soil, which is then turned again the next year. All of this is very invasive. Organic farmers do everything that they can to mitigate this invasiveness via various means. But still, agriculture is agriculture. Permaculture, on the other hand, focuses on perennials, long living plants that develop deep root systems. They don’t have to be irrigated or fertilized; the soil does not need to be turned every year, so vital fungal networks that are otherwise destroyed via tillage are free to fully develop, and they form stable ecosystems that resemble forests. So, maybe we should get drunk off perennial-derived hard cider instead of annual-derived beer? (Did you know that there is a cidery around us? Young American Hard Cider-check them out).
There is the question however of whether or not if permaculture efficiently produces as much food per acre as agriculture. The two schools of thought are often at odds with one another. I do think that both could benefit from adopting methods and philosophies from each other, and agriculturalists often do employ permacultural methods. In any event, I’m not writing all this to claim that one method is better than the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Rather, I’m mentioning all of this as an introduction to what I really want to convey: what do the differences between agriculture and permaculture tell us about our place and role in nature? And what in fact is nature, if that word has any meaning whatsoever? And finally, how should we live our lives?
The phrases “working against nature” and “mimicking nature” that I wrote above can all too easily lead one to the conclusion that humans are somehow separate from nature, that nature is some entity that humans either work with or against. This view, that humanity is separate from nature, emerged with Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon during the Scientific Revolution. Descartes, a rationalist, believed that humans are outside and above nature because he claimed that we are unique in our ability to use “reason.” Similarly, Bacon, an empiricist, believed that humans are outside and above nature because we are unique in our ability to use “sensory observation.” We probably know a lot more about plants and animals now compared to the 1600s, but animals are fully capable of “reasoning” and “sensory perception”, and plants have their own form of these.
The man/nature duality, as this came to be known, has led to two seemingly opposing outlooks, which I’d say are more or less two sides of the same coin. The first is what we see with many industrialists: that humans are meant to ruthlessly exploit nature so that it would yield to us. Well, this will always come back to bite us in the behind. The second is what we see with many modern-day environmentalists, that humans are a disease and nature will be at equilibrium if there were only less of us. Well, nature still will have blight, natural disasters, and that darn groundhog that destroys my kale plants. I think that both of these worldviews are problematic. They both stem from Descartes’s and Bacon’s separation of nature and humanity, which laid the framework from which they could emerge.
Truth is, we are very much a part of nature. At the same time though, I believe that humans do have a higher standing compared to everything else, but not because of Descartes’s and Bacon’s ideas that we are unique in our ability to rationalize and observe – these are both plainly false. Of all the modern philosophers I think that Martin Heidegger’s idea of “Dasein” might be a bit more convincing: he said that humans are unique because we are the only being that questions our own “beingness.” But not everyone asks that question, so maybe it doesn’t work. I don’t know. But anyway, prior to any of these dudes, most people maintained the worldview of the ancients. If I had to choose the single most influential book written in history, at least one that is still widely read, it would be the first book of the Torah, “Bereshit” in Hebrew (literally “in the beginning”), also known as the Book of Genesis. Descartes, Bacon, and others have responded to it in one way or another.
Whether or not one believes the Book of Genesis literally, metaphorically, or not at all, I think that the creation story in the first chapter has some very interesting things to say about humans and nature. At this point I’m going to switch away from the term “nature” because really, the connotation of this word presupposes the exclusion of humanity. On all the dating aps I’m on, so many people describe themselves as a “nature lover.” And I don’t really know why I don’t get responses after I keep asking, “so do you mean trees AND humanity or just trees?” Hopelessly romantic, I know. Maybe I should just copy and paste this entire newsletter next time to give some context. Anyway, I want to start using the word “creation.” This word more clearly includes humans. (just to be clear I’m not making any claims about creationism vs. evolution, another topic entirely. I’m using the word creation because it just fits better with what I’m talking about.
In the first chapter God creates plants and animals before humans. But he doesn’t only create them; he also ascribes the value of goodness to them: “And God saw that it was good.” We see an inherent “goodness” ascribed to plants and animals. He then goes on to create humans. But there is a difference between the creation of humans and the creation of plants and animals: while they are all ascribed as “good,” God creates humans in the image of himself. Hence humans have a higher standing than plants and animals. Right away we see here something completely different from what Descartes and Bacon were arguing. According to ancient thought, humans are IN creation alongside plants and animals: they all have the same source. At the same time, humans are HIGHER than the rest of creation. Yet this hierarchy does not imply exploitation. On the contrary, all of creation is valued as good. According to Descartes and Bacon, humans are separate from nature, and nature CANNOT be called “good” because they also constructed what’s called the fact/value opposition. The fact/value opposition claims that things cannot have inherent goodness. This was fundamental to the rise of science and to the exploitation of nature by man-it’s another important topic that I’m not going to get into. This is getting long enough, but you can read about it here).
Now, back to permaculture. I think that the most interesting part about Genesis is the fact that humans were created within a permacultural system: the Garden of Eden has nothing but perennials. Adam and Eve do not have to turn the soil. They just walk up to a tree and pluck the fruit. However, after the fall, God kicks them out of the garden and tells them that they have to now “work the ground” (sounds like tillage) and that the ground will “produce thorns and thistles” (sounds like weeds). There is an immediate switch from permaculture to agriculture. Interesting.
So let me bring this all together…There are some great questions that we discussed in my undergraduate courses at Ursinus College, and I enjoy revisiting them as I grow older, as I learn more, and as I write more. How should we produce food? What is our role in nature/creation as humans? And how should we live our lives? I think that we ought to produce food in such a way that captures a lot of the characteristics of the pre-fall permaculture within the context of the productive efficiencies of post-fall agriculture as best we can. I also think that we need to have a relationship with all fellow created beings in such a way that is respectful and loving of their intrinsic value. But we need to do so in such a way that also gives homage to our own, higher intrinsic value. What does this mean for you? For me, it means having the time to enjoy consuming and making art, music, poetry, and philosophy, and to get drunk off both annual-derived beer on Fridays and perennial-derived cider on Saturdays (you don’t wanna mix them) with friends and loved ones, with plants and pets present. All of the things that make life worth living.
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