Permaculture: palliative care for the planet?

Graham Truscott
Monday, 22nd July 2019

Are we practicing permaculture because we think it can change any of the symptoms and restore the patient to health? Are we doing it in wilful ignorance of the likelihood that “the big picture” will overwhelm our efforts anyway? Or are we doing it because, in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it is nevertheless still the “right thing to do”?

There’s a story that runs along the lines of a wise woman (or possibly man or person of transgender) being asked what she was planning to do the following day.

The response, allegedly, was “Plant a tree”. 

When asked why she would plant a tree, she is supposed to have responded that it would be the right thing to do. Moreover, it would be good because she would help it grow and, in time, sit with friends in the shade of its leaves, eat and share its fruit, admire the birds it attracted and cut wood from its branches when she needed fuel.

When asked what she would do tomorrow, if she knew for certain that tomorrow would be the very last day of her life, her reply was the same: “Plant a tree” she said.

“But why would you do that when you will not live to see it grow, pick its fruit or sit in its shade with your friends?” they asked.

“Because…”, she said,  “…it would be the right thing to do.”

So, here we are, permaculture-minded people - and the context for what we do, however local we might think it is, is the horrendous abyss/monster in the room that is the global Climate Crisis.

But not only that. Multiple sibling anthropogenic crises also threaten everything. From chemical (including plastic) and nuclear pollution to species extermination, from access to fresh water and soil degradation to disease and war… if we look at the big patterns and trends the picture is not pretty...

A doctor friend commented recently that if a patient had as many life-threatening problems in their body, and had them as severely as these symptoms affect the biosphere, she would be making a terminal diagnosis and recommending palliative care…

And thus, the question: Are we practicing permaculture because we think it can change any of the symptoms and restore the patient to health? Are we doing it in wilful ignorance of the likelihood that “the big picture” will overwhelm our efforts anyway? Or are we doing it because, in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it is nevertheless still the “right thing to do”?

One perspective is that as a form of palliative care for a dying biosphere, permaculture is damn good practice. Examples exist of permaculture projects transforming quite substantial areas of degraded landscape in all parts of the world. Projects, even as small as the 10-acre Whistlewood Common in Derbyshire, England, (on relatively undamaged land), which takes much of my time and energy, yield great benefit to individuals, local communities, wildlife and their neighbours.

But the scale can seem puny against the march of monocultures, huge wildfires worldwide, the rape of mineral resources, the sprawl of nature-denying concrete cities, loss of polar ice, dead ocean zones etc, etc.

Are our permaculture projects, in reality, akin to scented oil that a loving nurse might rub on the skin of a late stage cancer patient? Are we giving the patient, at best, just moments of pain relief in one part of their body? Or can permaculture be the wonder drug that will restore the whole patient from near-death to robust good health?

Examples abound of people in any state of health benefitting from engagement with natural systems. There are fewer examples in medical records of near-dead people with multiple illnesses and strong indicators of imminent demise, returning to full vitality. Even fewer cases, I fear, where the return to health occurs despite the patient’s insistence, against all scientific and medical advice, on continuing to do the many bad things that exacerbate their symptoms and potentially hasten death…

There are “natural” lifetimes for all living creatures: so if you escape death now, does it merely postpone the Grim Reaper’s visit? The planet we live on has experienced mass extinctions of living creatures before. Does the whole biosphere need to go through another big life and death cycle, so that eventually something new can emerge?

This, however, appears to be the first mass extinction in which one lifeform has connived in its own demise and caused the extinction of other species.

Where does this leave us as permaculture practitioners? Do we have to accept the analogy of dying patient/dying biosphere or must we maintain our “hopium” that we are misreading the big picture? Or are we misinterpreting the wider patterns and symptoms and is the situation not so likely terminal after all?

If the former, permaculture becomes palliative care, the world our hospice - and the more of it the better. If the latter, then permaculture is a rare ray of possibility, a potential wonder health-restoring treatment – and the more of it, the better.

If we don’t know whether we are going to die tomorrow, let’s plant a tree. If it looks extremely likely that we are going to die tomorrow, let’s plant our trees anyway.

Graham Truscott, a systems geographer by training, undertook his PDC with Aranya and Mike Evans in 2009. He is a founder director of the community benefit cooperative Whistlewood Common Limited, a permaculture agroforestry project in South Derbyshire. He has been active in the Transition Towns Network locally and nationally for the past ten years and also, more recently, in the Extinction Rebellion movement. Graham is a member of the Commercial Advisory Panel of The National Forest and a director also of several other innovative cleantech enterprises.

Useful links

Trees can rescue climate crisis

Permaculture solutions for climate change

A comprehensive plan to reverse climate change: project drawdown

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