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Design for Living

What's permaculture, you ask? Oh, just a natural safety net for complete disaster, that's all

By Gianna De Persiis Vona

Until recently, I didn't know much about permaculture. I only knew that it had something to do with sustainable gardening practices, and that I was hearing about it with increased frequency. On one hand, I was correct in that permaculture is very much concerned with the growing of food, and that it is indeed a rapidly spreading movement. But this is hardly an accurate definition. Permaculture, as I learned at the recent North Bay Permaculture Convergence, is actually an ecological design system for sustainability, one that spirals into all aspects of life.

Benjamin Fahrer, permaculturalist and educator, was up from Big Sur for this three-day event in west Sonoma County, attended by some 150 people. The Convergence, the fifth of its kind for the North Bay, attracts permaculturalists from Monterey to Mendocino County and moves to a different location each year.  

Think of "permaculture" as meaning "permanent culture," Fahrer tells me, where the goals are "Earthcare," "Peoplecare" and "Fairshare."

The first two concepts, Earthcare and Peoplecare, are pretty self-explanatory. There's really no reason that everyone in the world can't have a safe place to sleep, clean water to drink and enough food to eat. Yet as a culture, we seem to accept extreme disparities in lifestyle—some are millionaires, while others starve. This is where Fairshare comes in. Fairshare creates a cycle, a feedback loop that sets limits to consumption and churns our surpluses back to the earth and its people.

Currently, we live in a culture that throws things away, and according to Fahrer, we are temporary and complacent. Until we begin to put our egos in check by considering what we need and not what we want, then there will be a continued lack of surplus. Fairshare comes from understanding these concepts and from living a life that is not based on throwaway ideology and self-obsessed ultraconsumption.

Fahrer says that permaculture founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren studied indigenous cultures in order to discover how they managed to exist in harmony with their surroundings. During their studies, Mollison and Holmgren found a consistent pattern. Successful indigenous cultures across the planet lived by three ethics: a reverence for the earth, a reverence for each other and a practice of giving back the surplus. Permaculturalists around the world have a vision of creating abundance—and by abundance they don't mean a red Ferrari and a pair of thousand-dollar jeans. They mean a full stomach, clean water and a sense of community that's more sustaining than the fanciest stick shift.

For his part, Fahrer is about to begin a tour of permaculture schools and sites from Baja to British Columbia. There is a shift happening, Fahrer assures. The masses are looking for solutions, and those solutions are appearing all over the world. With this shift in consciousness comes the potential for the permaculture movement to shift and change as well, but there needs to be the least change for the greatest effect; existing institutions need to remain or become sustainable, and personal agendas have to be put aside.

This brings us to a critical point in my learning process. I am sensitive to the human capacity for egotistical behaviors, and everything about this permaculture thing reeks of the potential for self-congratulatory carrot planting. Fahrer acknowledges this risk, which is why before eco-restoration, we must have ego-restoration. An integral aspect to permaculture is the relinquishment of power; the strength of permaculture lies within the network, not just the individual. The only way a movement can have true strength and resiliency is if the people within it are helping each other.

When disaster strikes, Fahrer asks me, where are you going to go? He has community all over the world—and in that community, people are making their own food, saving their own water and harnessing their own energy. These are places where people are learning to put their egos aside and to live and work together.

Driving home, I consider Fahrer's question. Where will I go when the shit hits the fan? Sadly, I know where I'll be. While Fahrer and his permaculture crew are eating goat cheese on some epic piece of land somewhere with a rainwater catchment system and a fully functioning composting toilet, I'll be at the North Bay equivalent of the New Orleans Superdome. I can already see myself, a small plastic bottle of emergency water clutched in my sweaty fingers, while I stand in a spiraling line of exhausted and desperate people waiting to use a reeking Port-a-Potty. This image fills me with a wave of sadness, and for the first time, I feel ready to reassess my self-imposed limitations and to seek change.

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