Editor’s note: Civilizations are defined by the growth of cities, vast acreages of agriculture, and hierarchical social systems—and after creating short term surpluses of energy and wealth at the expense of sustainability, they inevitably collapse.

Today, we live in the first global civilization. The harnessing of fossil fuels has brought unimaginable power, but also terrible destructiveness. No technological innovation or social organization will be a simple silver bullet to solve these issues.

Nevertheless, people around the world continue to experiment with alternative social arrangements. One is permaculture, which is often reduced to “gardening” but is actually a systems-thinking approach for deliberately designing human settlements, societies, and subsistence economies for sustainability and justice. In this era, systems-thinking around sustainability inevitably includes strategy and action to defend the planet, in addition to building alternative ways of living.

In this piece, Jennifer Murnan argues that permaculture practitioners, who often becomes insular “lifeboaters” or “survivalists,” should link their work to political resistance movements working to dismantle industrial civilization before it’s too late.

by Jennifer Murnan / Communities that Protect and Resist

Currently, permaculture operates in the realm of bright green environmental activism and adherents seemingly believe that the current culture can be transformed. Why should permaculturalists choose to align themselves with the deep green environmentalists that support dismantling civilization?

It’s all about deep abiding love for the truth that requires brave resistance to untruth. It’s about following that love down the path of truth. That’s what resistance in the form of permaculture is. That’s what the allure of permaculture, a permanent, sustainable culture, is for me.

We are animals, terrestrial animals, whose primary needs are for clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, healthy food to eat, and the security of community and relationship with each other and our fellow living creatures. Life for us is totally dependent on the health of the earth and our kin, human and non human. All that we create must serve this fundamental truth.

The Permaculture movement has always run counter to the beliefs and principles of global civilization. It views nature as a partner, a teacher, and a guide whom we honor and are completely dependent on. This is completely contrary to the cultural view of western civilization; that the natural world is here to serve us, to be used and abused at will, and that this abuse is justifiable.

Permaculture practice, by definition, is an attempt to depart from the model of exploitation and importation of resources necessitated by civilization. To live permanently in one place is the antithesis of the pattern exhibited repeatedly by civilizations. Civilizations cannot live in place. They violently import and exploit human and natural resources, exhaust their ecosystems, experience population overshoot, and collapse leaving an impoverished land base in their wake. Western industrial civilization is currently playing this scenario out on a global scale. Permaculture not only cannot exist within the confines of civilization, it also cannot coexist with a civilization that is devouring the world. It is neither ethical nor practical on the part of permaculturalists to attempt to do so.

Another reason lies in the common visions of the primacy of the earth shared by deep green and permaculture activists. The first ethic in permaculture is ’Care for the Earth’. Without this basis, the second and third ethics, ’Care for people’, and ‘Redistribute surplus to one’s needs’, are impossible. Healthy organisms produce a surplus to feed and enrich the ecosystem in which they exist. Simply put, there is no health unless Earth is cared for first.

“The Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home. It is everything.”

— Derrick Jensen Endgame

There are attitudes shared by Permaculture and the Deep Green movement. Permaculturalists believe in working with nature and not against it. Fostering a respect for all life is inherent in permaculture practice. Valuing people and their skills creates more diversity, creativity and productivity in permaculture and deep green communities. Alignment between Deep Green and the Permaculture movements is especially apparent in two permaculture design principles. 

Seeking to preserve, regenerate and extend all natural and traditional permanent landscapes is a goal of both communities. Preserving and increasing biodiversity of all types is recognized as being essential for survival by both Deep Greens and Permaculturalists.

A primary reason for permaculture to become part of a culture of resistance is that permaculture’s two guiding principles logically mandate dismantling civilization. The precautionary principle states that we should take seriously and act on any serious or destructive diagnosis unless it is proven erroneous.

Civilization has proven itself to be destructive to ecosystems since its inception. Western industrial civilization is causing the wholesale destruction of every ecosystem on Earth.

Practicing permaculture individually can be construed to be a revolutionary act, capable of saving the planet. But individual acts can’t possibly do the trick. Like any other liberal act, it fails to recognize the systems that are destroying the planet and confront them. The most elegant and nurturing permaculture garden will not stop the operation of a single coal fired plant or deep sea oil drilling or fracking or the destruction of a rain forest.

“The dominant culture eats entire biomes. No, that is too generous, because eating implies a natural biological relationship; This culture doesn’t just consume ecosystems, it obliterates them, it murders them, one after another. This culture is an ecological serial killer, and it’s long past time we recognize the pattern.”

— Aric McBay

A large scale and effective response to this destruction is necessary. The tactics of the environmental movement up to this point have been insufficient. We are losing. It is time to change our strategy. Therefore, the Deep Green movement is advocating for all tactics to be considered to stop the murder of the Earth.  This includes, but is not limited to, practicing permaculture, legislation, legal action, civil-disobedience, and industrial sabotage. 

There are problems with holding the permaculture movement as the sole solution to global destruction. While transitioning to sustainability in our personal lives is important, even more important is confronting and dismantling the oppressive systems of power that promote unsustainability, exploitation, and injustice on a global scale. In fact, if these systems are left in place, the gains made by the practice of permaculture will be washed away in civilization’s tidal wave of destruction.

“Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral and stupid. Sustainability, morality and intelligence (as well as justice) require the dismantling of any such economic or social system or at the very least disallowing it from damaging your landbase.”

— Derrick Jensen

One of the necessary steps to restoring our relationships with each other and our planet is dismantling the current destructive systems of power through organized political resistance. We are in global ecological crisis, and the love and resistance inherent in permaculture can and frequently does ally with the victims of oppression, support and increase the health of natural systems, work to support and reclaim indigenous knowledge and greater than human wisdom and teaching.

The second guiding principle of permaculture, ‘intergenerational equity’, also necessitates immediate action in response to the destructive force of civilization.  This principle states that future generations have the same rights as we do to food, clean air, water, and resources. This statement applies to all humans and non-humans equally. Daily, entire species are being eliminated from this planet as result of the activities of industrial civilization. ‘Intergenerational equity’ for them has ceased to exist and every day this destruction continues more species go extinct. Allowing this to continue is unconscionable.

Permaculture is based on close observation of the natural world, and I believe it can only realize its full potential in a human community that acknowledges the natural laws of its land base as primary. Practicing permaculture in any context other than this necessitates subverting our principles and betraying everything that nurtures and sustains us, all that is sacred, our living earth. We can only truly belong in a culture of resistance, and in communities of resistance.

 Both permaculturalists and deep greens know that the earth is everything, that there is no greater good than this planet, than life itself. We owe her everything and without her, we die.

“The earth is our mother. We all come from our mother and to her we shall return. We are of the earth and it is absurd to imagine that we can “own” it, even in small pieces.

And yet the earth has been divvied up as private property. Property is a legal concept, a cultural production and not an intrinsic quality of land. Notions of what can be privatized seem to be infinitely expansive: land is privatized; seeds and genes are privatized; and even water is privatized.”

— Sandor Ellix Katz The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved

It is insane to “own” the land, the water, the air, yet this culture’s laws support and enforce that delusion. We design systems within boundaries and fail to challenge those boundaries, so our designs never truly integrate with their ecosystem, are defenseless against the onslaught of subsurface mineral rights which supersede surface rights and the resultant mining operations, the privatization and theft of water from the natural watershed that nourish the land, and rigidly enforced illusion of individual ownership over the concept of collective responsibility.

One of the necessary steps to restoring our relationships with each other and our planet is dismantling the current destructive systems of power through organized political resistance. We are in global ecological crisis, and the love and resistance inherent in permaculture can and frequently does ally with the victims of oppression, support and increase the health of natural systems, work to support and reclaim indigenous knowledge and greater than human wisdom and teaching.

This is it; we need each other, everyone, every tactic we can muster in defense of the earth.  We have never been able to afford civilization.

“The task of an activist is not to navigate around systems of oppression with as much personal integrity as possible. It’s to bring those systems down.”

— Lierre Keith

(See also: can permaculture become a revolutionary force?)

Photo by Olivier Mary on Unsplash