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Starting with Ourselves to Create the World We Want

Looking at the world around us, we can easily see a glass 'half empty.' We see record national and household debts, the breakdown of families and communities, increasing addictive behaviors, climate changes at a global scale, resource depletion (including the looming global peak oil crisis), pressure from over-population, loss of farmland, loss of wilderness, an escalating concern for water supplies, senseless wars to control precious resources, and the world's political leaders retreating into fear-mongering, anarchy, and fascism. It would be easy to be depressed, to throw up one's hands and say, "It's not worth it; we're doomed no matter what we do."

But the glass is also half-full.

More than half-full! In fact, it is brimming with the possibilities of beauty and abundance! The cost of achieving these, however, will be for each of us to accept greater responsibility for our own lives and our own well-being. This is the heart and soul of the sustainable living methodology called permaculture. We must start with ourselves to create the world we want. (1)

Permaculture, begun in Australia in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, is a contraction of two words, 'permanent' and 'culture', and is a methodology that seeks to provide for our physical needs - food, water, shelter, energy, etc. - while doing so in an environmentally friendly, sustainable manner. This movement was originally viewed as only a part of the organic gardening movement, but, as David Holmgren says, "Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on the use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as 'alternative response to environmental crisis' to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era." (2)

But how can we as individuals begin to take more responsibility for our lives? Certainly, we've heard the suggestions: Walk, ride a bike, or take mass transit; take 'navy' showers; replace light bulbs with compact fluorescents; turn the heat down/ weather-proof you home; etc. Is this permaculture? Yes, but these are just pieces. Of much greater importance, we are attempting to build a conscious mindset about our everyday choices, and to design and maintain systems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. (3) The key word here is 'system'.

To illustrate this, in Nature there is no such thing as the human-created concept of 'waste.' Everything in Nature is reused. In understanding this, it is not surprising to find that systems in Nature have the 'yields' of one part of the system (the buffalo 'chips' deposited in the tall grass prairies of Oklahoma) in adjacency to the resource base or 'needs' of another system (the grasses' need for nitrogen to be healthy and the buffalos' need for the grass to live). This is the first principle of permaculture and perhaps the most important one: "Relative Location." Using the ethics and principles of permaculture (1 and 2), a system can be built in every home, apartment, or condominium to produce at least some portion of the residents' resource needs. It can be as simple as planting a few herbs in a pot outside a sunny door. Or, as my wife and I have done at our home, which sits on 1/5 of an acre close to downtown Raleigh, NC, we've built a fence to enclose our sunny front yard, and are making it of espaliered apple trees that will be maintained at 4' high. In a few years, when we remove the cedar and bamboo support structure (locally procured and free!), we'll have a living fence that will provide a sense of enclosure as well as delicious, organic fruits from late Summer through the Fall.

A slightly more complex example involves the chickens that we raise in our backyard for eggs and their entertainment value. To protect the chickens from predators at night (dogs, raccoons, possums, etc.), we built a lockable, welded wire cage. Because chickens need to be cool in the heat of our summers, we grow our grape vines over this arbor/cage. Japanese Beetles love grape leaves, so they will go to our arbor first before searching for other delectable plants. The defense mechanism for Japanese Beetles is that they simply drop whenever danger lurks, so we shake the arbor first thing in the mornings when we go out to feed and let the chickens out. You are likely guessing and are correct that chickens simply LOVE Japanese Beetles. So, we have a complete system: Security from predators, shade, a protein source for our chickens, control of insect pests, and a protein source for us in the form of eggs. In addition, the chicken coop is located immediately adjacent to our production garden, and once a week, we take the straw bedding and ground covering from the coop and pen and throw it over the fence into a pile in our garden space. This is spread around our plants and becomes the main source of fertilizer for our year-round greens, our veggies, herbs, and our fruit-bearing species of trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers.

Another example of setting up a system in our home landscape involves water. Raleigh is located in a region that has, with some regularity, periodic droughts between July and late October, often lasting for two months at a time. My wife and I have determined that it takes approximately 300 gallons of water to irrigate our vegetables and fruits, and we typically have to do this twice a week in order to keep the plants healthy in drier times (three times per week allows them to thrive). The City's water rationing policy restricts our use of tap water for irrigation, but we've built a system that allows us to abide by this policy while giving us the necessary water. We do what the majority of the people in the rest of the countries in the world do; we collect the rainwater that falls on our roof. For every 1000 sq. ft. of the footprint of a house, around 600 gallons of water can be collected for every 1" of rainwater that falls. Our house is small (intentionally so because a smaller space uses less resources), being only 1000 sq. ft. Clearly we have to store the water we catch in order to get us through the periods of drought, and eventually, we will have the minimum necessary storage capacity of around 5000 gallons. If this seems like a lot, doing the math on the rainfall, even in last year's drought where we only had 39"+ of rain, it still translates to 23,400 gallons of water that fell on our small roof. In addition, because my family wants to be able to be able to use the water that we capture for emergency situations (like when Hurricane Fran made the City's water supply suspect for a week in 1996), we've converted our asphalt roof to a metal roof to increase the cleanliness of our captured water.

David Holmgren and his family, living in Australia, produce 95% of all the food that they consume on their 5 acre plot of land, rely on photovoltaics and use no outside electricity, and through a very well designed solar home, use only a modicum of wood in their stove to heat their home in their winters. My wife and I are close to being self-sufficient in the greens that we eat (lettuces, sorrel, chickweed, oxalis, collards, spinach, kale, mustard, etc.), and plan to be almost self sufficient with fruits (we currently have apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, Chinese Chi, Oriental persimmons, Service berries, Jostaberries, grapes, kiwis, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries - and we're looking into planting a cold hardy banana that bears fruit!). We plan to install a solar hot water heating system, because even though it will cost us an initial $5000, with tax incentives and the yearly savings, the system will pay for itself within five years. We live within a mile and a half of my work so that I drive very little, and mostly walked before my knees gave out. We use a front loading washer that runs on $9 of electricity per year, and often dry our clothes on a clothes line. (If all the clothes in the U.S. were dried on lines, we wouldn't need any of the existing nuclear reactors.)

These measures may seem too drastic or beyond the range of skills of many people, but there are things that each of us can do. In taking whatever small steps toward greater responsibility we each choose, we will have to rely more and more on one another - on our neighbors and our local community. The peak oil crisis will soon make it no longer feasible to provide 3000 mile Caesar salads to the people of the East Coast (4), so more food will have to be produced locally. This will require more people working to grow the food and will thus create more jobs locally. So, in addition to increasing the health and nutrition of the food we eat (most foods travel an average of 2700 miles to our tables, and are two weeks old by the time we eat them, containing less than 40% of their original nutritional value), it will also contribute significantly to our local economies. Greater recycling and repair operations will also create more local jobs as well as putting us in better touch with the people, skills, and resources of our communities. And, one of the best time-tested building methodologies, earthen or 'cob' construction, relies on the availability of good clay; if there's one thing the Triangle has in quantity it's an ample supply of good clay. Better food, reduced pollution, more localized and stronger economies, less expensive homes, an increased sense of community - these are great attributes! Let's celebrate our good fortune!

In the abundant and beautiful world of our possible future, we will not be striving for self-sufficiency (as the Flower Children tried in the '60's and '70s); we will be embracing an interdependent relationship with the people of our local communities. And, as David Holmgren added in his statement on the role of permaculture in this future, "Whether (the methodology used) will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter entirely." (2)


1) Hooker, Will and Dickson, Julie; "Start with Ourselves: Creating the World We Want;" Draft mission statement for future video series on permaculture; 2006.

2) Holmgren, David; Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, Australia ; 2003.

3) Mollison, Bill, with Shay, Mia; Introduction to Permaculture; Tagari Press, Tyalgum, Australia ; 1991.

4) Kunstler, James Howard; in DVD, "The End of Suburbia"; The Post Carbon Institute, 2004.

Will Hooker is a permaculture designer and teacher, a registered Landscape Architect, and a Professor of Landscape Design in the Department of Horticultural Science at NC State University. You can reach Will by calling (919) 515-1194, or emailing For a quick look at their gardens, drive drive by their home: 610 Kirby St., Raleigh, NC.

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