By Boris Forkel
In this lecture, we will cover a wide range of 10,000 years of agricultural history. Starting with the initial question “how old is human culture” we argue that humans have been living in a wide range of different cultures, long before some of them started applying agriculture about 10,000 years ago. We distinguish 5 different human cultures, according to the way they get their food and basic resources: Hunter/gatherers, horticulturists, pastoralists, agricultural, and finally industrial culture.
Agriculture of different character developed in some places in the world, and some forms are more destructive than others. The form of grain monoculture that developed about 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent has proven to be the most aggressive one, it is spreading very fast and with it the agricultural society, the people and their genes. It also causes the most devastating consequences for ecosystems. Europe was already ecologically badly damaged towards the end of the Middle Ages, by agriculture and the mining and extraction that was needed to fuel countless wars between European lords and kings.
The Issues with Agriculture
Environmental problems caused by agriculture are not a new phenomena. As a consequence, the European people had a large pressure to expand. The conquest of the Americas is the most recent disaster of this clash of cultures that has been going on for 10,000 years. The American Holocaust is the greatest mass murder in human history, the annihilation of at least 500 unique cultures, languages, peoples and world views that will never come back.
Since “unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture” (Robert Combs), and “Culture” means “enacting a story” (Daniel Quinn), we continue exploring some of the myths of agrarian culture. The question “why we are doing all of this” leads us back to biblical times and a spiral of violence that started with early agrarian empires and their efforts to conquer and colonize the middle east.
Following the development of apocalyptic thinking that originated in the ruined and deeply traumatized societies the empires and their wars left behind, we discover that “authoritarian religion and technocracy are not opposites, but part of a continuum” (Fabian Scheidler).
Transformation through Technology
Finally, we enter the 20th century. Central to apocalyptic thinking is the complete destruction of the old and the creation of a new, better state. To replace the heavenly state for the souls heard by the Last Judgment comes the belief in a transformation of the world through technology. Nature, which is perceived as brutal, raw, wild, imperfect is to be replaced by a better system, created by man.
This is what we are currently doing with our modern capitalist economy. In modern times, especially in the 20th century, the mega- machine, into which agricultural culture had evolved, once again gained enormous momentum through the input of the newly discovered energy sources fossil coal and oil. Also the destructiveness gained enormous momentum which we can see in climate change, ecocide, critical state of freshwater resources etc.
As we know, the 20th century brought new weapons and new wars. A particularly important man, who‘s inventions shaped our recent history, was Fritz Haber. He developed the process of ammonia synthesis in 1909. Ammonium nitrate is the basic material for explosives and also chemical fertilizers. The 20th century was marked by an explosion of human population that planet earth had never seen before. Fritz Haber inventions indeed broke the planetary boundaries by artificially producing more nitrogen than there would be naturally. This was the birth of modern industrial agriculture.
After we have covered all these startling facts, we can finally start thinking about solutions. But we have to learn that “The political system cannot be counted on to reform agriculture because any political system is a creation of agriculture, a co-evolved entity. The major forces that shaped and shape our world –disease, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, trade, wealth– are all part of the culture agriculture evolved. (…) Just as surely, agriculture dug the tunnel of our vision.” (Richard Manning).
We‘ve probably understood during this lecture that the dominant culture, the civilization that is based on agriculture, inevitably leads to colonialism and conquest, and ultimately to the destruction of all life on this planet. That is the history, the present and that will be the future. But the future is ours, and we can change it. We can stop the destruction, and we can build alternative, life-centered cultures with structures and institutions that are based on cooperation, mutual understanding and respect. Whatever happens, the future must be an age of ecological restoration.
After millenia of agriculture, war, colonialism and suppression, all of us are, over generations, severely traumatized by all this violence. We went crazy and thought that we have to conquer and subdue nature and change the world fundamentally with our technology. All peoples who stood in the way of the expansion of agrarian culture were either destroyed or robbed of their land, their spirituality, their culture, and traumatized by violence and oppression, so that they became equally insane. (This is what Jack Forbes called Wétiko disease in his brilliant book Columbus and Other Cannibals.)
I want permaculture to become a remedy that helps us to recover from this delusional state, so in the last part of this lecture we get to know permaculture, its founder Bill Mollison and its basic principles and ethics as a viable alternative. Coming to an end, I want to answer the initial question “Why do we need permaculture?”. Do we want an era of collapse, the apocalypse? Or do we want to take the chance and be protagonists of a new age of ecological restoration?
You may know the slogan swords to plowshares. It comes from the bible and has been used by movements for peace for a long time. But even they did obviously not understand that no lasting peace is possible within agricultural culture. Any peace movement that fails to recognize this must fail. Because whoever has plowshares will soon need swords. Actually, the plowshare itself is already a sword that injures the earth. It is the same analogy as explosives and chemical fertilizers, pesticides and chemical weapons. But we obviously had to break the planetary boundaries first to see these connections.
The more I think about it, the more permaculture becomes a new peace movement for me. So I would like to answer the question “Why do we need permaculture?” as follows: Agriculture is permanently at war (against nature and other people). Permaculture offers the chance for lasting peace.
Boris Forkel is a radical environmentalist, social rights activist and permaculturalist located in Germany. You can learn more about his work on his website BabylonApocalypse.org.