An environmental sociologist explains how permaculture offers a path to climate justice
Big farming is both a victim of climate change and a contributor. Droughts, floods and soil degradation threaten crop yields. But agriculture produces nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A potential antidote to harmful monocultures is a form of community farming invented back in the 1970s: permaculture. Permaculture is not just about farming; it incorporates economic and social principles.
I am an environmental sociologist, and I have witnessed permaculture working in two urban farming communities. I study ways that environmental justice, global development and social equity affect climate change.
Permaculture’s three main tenets – caring for the Earth, caring for the people and sharing the surplus – offer a potential path toward climate justice, which is a response to well-researched phenomena that climate change disproportionately harms underprivileged groups in economic, public health and other ways, and solutions to climate change should include adaptation strategies designed specifically for underprivileged groups.
I spent time at two communities in the Pacific Northwest and in Cuba during the fieldwork for my book “Surviving Collapse.” I witnessed how the communities worked to cut emissions and adapt to climate change in two ways: with egalitarian social organization and regenerative farming techniques.
Permaculture was born in Australia
In the 1970s, two Australian naturalists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, invented permaculture, a method of growing that considers the natural ecosystem and the community. They wanted to change agriculture’s unsustainable practices, like the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Mollison and Holmgren borrowed ideas and techniques from the knowledge and practices of Indigenous and traditional peoples, as well as the “do-nothing” farming methods of Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. Today permaculture is an international movement that, although understudied, shows great promise.
Permaculture aims to care for the Earth by emulating how healthy natural ecosystems function rather than trying to fight or control nature. Its methods are regenerative, meaning that they maintain healthy, nutrient-rich soils, minimize waste, conserve water and protect wildlife habitat. Permaculture often produces crops that are more nutritious than those from industrial farms and, in some cases, yields greater harvests.
Permaculture differs from organic farming in that organic is a legal designation about regulating genetically modified organisms and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, whereas regenerative agriculture is more concerned with ecosystem and soil health. Both permaculture and organic methods sometimes manage fertilizers or pests in similar ways. However, as Holmgren has emphasized “people, their buildings and the ways they organize themselves are central to permaculture.”