Permaculture takes the long view of the big picture

What is permaculture?

The primary agenda of the [permaculture] movement has been to assist people to become more self reliant through the design and development of productive and sustainable gardens and farms. The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.“(1)

What does the permaculture movement have in common with the native plant movement?

Both have an interest in the preservation of native habitats and animals and both want to reduce the negative impact of human habitation on the Earth’s ecosystems.

How is the permaculture movement different from the native plant movement?

The permaculture movement has a broader view of ecology including the impact modern agriculture has on the Earth’s ecology, taking into account that modern crops are almost entirely non-native.  Permaculture considers both the costs and benefits of native plant “restorations”—such as the use of pesticides—and also puts the question of how realistic the goals of the project are into that equation.  Permaculture respects the complexity of nature and the shortened time perspective of man.  It therefore does not assume that man is capable of foreseeing the consequences of his manipulation of nature.  The humility of permaculture is a stark contrast to the sweeping generalizations and dogmatic edicts that we often hear from native plant advocates. 

What do the principles of permaculture tell us about “invasion biology?”

The principles of permaculture were eloquently expressed in a recent blog dialogue about the potential for introduced species to be invasive, in this case the kiwi vine.  The author of this comment is Toby Hemenway, who has given us permission to reprint his comment.  Mr. Hemenway is the author of a book (Gaia’s Garden:  A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009) and a website about permacultureReading the entire comment thread in which this comment appears will help you to understand the difference between the native plant movement and the permaculture movement.   


Hardy Kiwi. Creative Commons

“I have said several times that the shade-tolerant vines are very challenging species, so I’m not surprised to see Mr. Lautzenheiser’s report [about the kiwi vine]. And I’ll repeat that all of New England is a highly disturbed landscape…

The vines will come, and they will go. After all the alterations in the landscape Euro-Americans have made, it’s going to be centuries before we stop seeing things like these kiwi amphitheaters. We cannot predict when a species will turn rampant – next time it might be string beans – so we have two choices: never, ever introduce a new species, or accept that we are dealing with new types of ecosystems that are going to make us miserable if we keep thinking about the impact of new species as a disaster. The first is impossible.

Very relevantly, I spent last Saturday in the Beartooth Mountains with a retired local ecologist. We stopped at a disturbed site in the sagebrush above Red Lodge and he harvested two bouquets of plants, one of natives, one of exotics. The exotic bouquet had at least twice as many species in it, including a number that he was pretty upset with. He is no fan of invasive species. Later we stood in a mixed-conifer grove high in the much less disturbed mountains, and he showed the immense damage from the pine beetle, a native insect that is devastating millions of acres in the west. It seems to have burst out of control because of decades of Smoky the Bear fire suppression – our way of saving the ecosystem – that has left the forest full of crowded trees that are perfect beetle food. This is a native species that has gone rampant. This happens all the time: many thousands of acres of lodgepole pine in Idaho and eastern Washington are dying from native honey-mushroom infestation, but ecologists are starting to understand that this may be a way of returning nutrients to the soil after old-growth forests have sequestered them above ground for too long. We hate to see these forests die. And we don’t know what’s going on.

When someone asked what we can do about all this, the ecologist answered that we can preserve very small areas in special projects, but that anything beyond that is simply impossible. The impact of non-native species, he said, brought here in the massive quantities that they were and still are, combined with our alterations in the landscape of a whole continent, make any return to previous conditions out of the question. We don’t like this, he said, because it holds a mirror up to us and shows us how out of balance with the rest of nature we are. And now we’re stuck with the consequences, so we demonize the other species instead of facing what he sees as the real problem: there are too many of us, moving around far too much. Asking people not to plant species that they like is a losing game, not with a hundred million gardeners in this country shopping at nurseries.

We’re going to have to learn to live with this new landscape, as much as we don’t like it, and take it as a stunning opportunity to learn about ecosystem development, was his conclusion. It is a colossal experiment in hybridizing whole ecosystems, and to say “this species is bad, or this one” misses the point completely. We have altered a continent and there is no undoing it, no return to before. We cling to the hope of preservation and restoration because we can’t accept that we have to live with what we have done. It’s time to move on, he said, accept that these species are here, and stop interfering. We didn’t know enough to keep this from happening, and we surely don’t know enough to “fix” it. The attempted cures are doing even more harm, the way fire suppression did. Thinking it is a problem is the problem.

He struck me as a wise man, in many ways, and I learned a lot from him. I’ve been spending many days in Yellowstone this summer, and see that one simple restoration act, re-introducing the wolf, has slammed through that nearly undisturbed, enormous ecosystem in hundreds of unforeseen ways. The elk have been driven out of the valleys into the hills. The bison are exploding through the valleys, along with once-scarce pronghorns. Species mixes of all kinds are shifting in totally unforeseen ways. It was a profoundly radical act that has totally altered the landscape, all because of one management decision. And we think we know that hardy kiwi is wrong to be there? We need to stop deciding we know better than nature, even nature with kiwi in it.

Am I saying we should do nothing? Well, we can do what we want, and I’m sure we will. But it won’t make much difference at all, except where we’re able to target especially vulnerable species and habitats and freeze some of them where they are (in ways nature never does). Nature is just too big, the process too far along.

I was at a conference a while ago called “Native Plants and Permaculture” where those two groups came together to make peace and learn from each other. We did an exercise where everyone lined up where they thought they fell along a spectrum from “Only plant natives” to “Plant whatever you want.” There were 3 people in the first category, and one in the latter. Everyone else, permies and nativists, were mixed in a perfect bell curve with most right in the middle. Our differences are tiny. Let’s stop focusing on them.

Again, I think that against all the good that permaculturists are doing, it makes little sense to focus on the tiny minority of us who don’t think before we plant. That’s a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to corn, GMOs, nursery owners, developers, and all the others who alter land and plant exotics. It’s a classic case of making our firing squad in a circle, as Che claimed the Left was prone to do. The discussion of all this is very fruitful, but the accusations that permaculturists are doing significant harm, compared to all the others, don’t hold up.

Most states have invasive species lists in the several hundreds, which to me says we’re either completely doomed or there is an error in our way of thinking. In another 5 years another hardy kiwi-like enemy will appear, and then another, and another, with no one able to predict, like the native pine beetle, what it will be. You can be miserable about this if you want; I’m going to watch it and learn from it. We have no choice but to wait out the next few hundred years until this terribly unbalanced landscape finds some new, always-dynamic set of equilibriums. Meanwhile I’ll be using the best tools available (and they won’t include hardy kiwi in New England!) to create healthy designed ecosystems in the places people are settled in, and if nature chooses to use something I’ve planted for her own purposes, in a way that I don’t understand, I will accept that she knows what she is doing instead of thinking, always wrongly, that I know better.”


Oliver Holmgren (1997). “Weeds or Wild Nature”. Permaculture International Journal.

4 thoughts on “Permaculture takes the long view of the big picture”

  1. This is a very interesting post, especially the comment by Mr. Hemenway. It taught me a lot that I didn’t know about permaculture’s relationship to the native plant movement. Although I don’t agree with much, if anything, of what Sue Reed wrote in the original article, her arguments and those in some of the other comments on her article “Permaculture’s Internal Contradiction” go far beyond the lame nativist arguments one hears so often here in the S.F./East Bay area. It’s important to know these more considered nativist arguments and to be able to answer them, so thanks, Million Trees, for giving us this information and the opportunity to hear the other side.

  2. I especially like the last sentence of this article. I usually feel that invasion biology sounds like a ventriloquy exercice, making nature to speak through ourselves, but forgetting the stratagem nature of such a prosopopoeia. Most often, that’s just bad illusionism or bad music-hall.

    Webmaster: Yes, if I understand you correctly, I certainly agree. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 15 years from my study of the native plant movement, it is how little humans know about nature and how much damage we are capable of doing because of our ignorance. Actually our arrogance probably does more damage than our ignorance.

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