Can permaculture save the world?

A futuristic article by Kim Stanley Robinson, “How Science Saved the World,” can be found in the February 2000 issue of the prestigious journalNature (Vol. 403, p. 23). Looking 1,000 years into the future, Robinson reviews two books written around 3,000 AD: Science in the Third Millennium by Professor J. S. Khaldun; and Scientific Careers 2001-3000, written by a computer named “Ferdnand.”

Professor Khaldun propounds an ambitious theory of history as a clash between feudalism, capitalism (with its lingering feudal elements), and permaculture. He gives particular attention to the dangerous “overshoot” period of global warming and extinction, during which humanity’s reproductive success and primitive technology severely damaged Earth’s carrying capacity.

According to Khaldun:

“Capitalism attempted to maintain a hierarchy in which science would serve as pet monkey, cranking out new commodities and increasing lifespans. Science resisted this impulse not only because of the practical danger of the overshoot to the progeny of scientists, but also because science itself would be threatened if the residual elements succeeded.”

Scientists eventually transformed capitalism into a more rational, universal, lawful and pragmatic set of practices that came to be recognized as “permaculture.” Scientific Careers 2001-3000 provides extensive graphs and tables documenting the careers of scientists who worked during the “overshoot”: those who contributed to humanity’s survival, and those who did not. In this statistical work, the ultimate triumph of permaculture is seen as the sum of small individual positive actions, rather than as the grand battle envisioned by Professor Khaldun.

Fifteen years into the Third Millennium, what is the current state of the relationship between permaculture and science?

Permaculture — agriculture based on natural systems, with a strong emphasis on tree crops and water management — has come a long way since its debut at a call-in program on a public radio station in Melbourne, Australia in 1976. The crusty and entertaining views of one of its founders, Bill Mollison, are enshrined in a series of pamphlets (the Permaculture Design Course Series) still available online. These pamphlets offer Mollison’s personal history of the back-to-the-land movement, interspersed with startlingly incisive observations about successes and failures in applying ecological principles to the growing of food. Permaculture, with its links to intentional communities, may represent the most enduring legacy of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

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