Whether we look at people first, or animals, or plants, we know by the way we treat one how we behave towards the other.
Peoplecare is a difficult subject for a number of reasons. The first one that comes to mind is that you say you care but do not quite live up to it. For instance, the person under your care is in fact ill-treated. This may be the case of people who live in social ghettos or institutions, or it may be the many who suffer under a variety of oppressive regimes.
The other is that you never know when that beloved, wretched lot out there just happens to tramp upon your best hopes and dreams.
There are other reasons. 'People' is a term that lends itself to many a generalisation - the others, the consumers, TV celebrities, the Angolans. We mostly talk as if we knew who these 'people' were. Reference tends to become more and more oblique - ghost towns (who dwells in them?), future generations, medicine gone mad, religious and political hatred, the Far East.
Next, reality is extremely complex and intimidating. Food/health scares (the evils of sugar, study links red meat to cancer), violence, toxic products and climate change - to name but a few - are never off the agenda. Your confidence is shaken, perhaps you have been personally affected by these stories. And there are always people behind each story. Is caring for these people, caring for 'them', possible?
Occasionally there appears that things are being done. For Norman Baker (Lib Dem) climate change, as in the example above, is at least within earshot of the man that really counts in these matters, while conceding that, unfortunately, 'Tony Blair has got no influence on Bush when it comes to climate change.'
Caring must be nurtured, but we can't do that without taking responsibility. Have 'people' nothing to do with that reality? The doctors, the planners, the pensioners, the foremen, the shareholders? What part do I play?
It worries me that we have problems that are created by 'others' (they always are!), and that are now, lo and behold, solved by others as well! It doesn't work like that (and by the way Bush is not the man for the job!).
Solving and caring are often numbed, and this plunges us straight back into more human misery.
The technique we use to cope with complexity is to simplify issues and manage them accordingly (see also Norman Baker above and his bottom line approach). We simplify, contrast or unpack reality all the time: black and white, left and right, either or, us and them. Likewise, if I use the broad, general term of permaculture it's because I'm thinking of something different from agriculture or monoculture.
Different, indeed! To the non-initiated that small difference - permaculture, agriculture, monoculture - is hardly perceptible; to those in the know it's like inhabiting three different planets - the good, the bad, and the ugly. The same as the three worlds of morality, conformity and commitment: - 'More tea vicar?' 'But â€¦ but I'd come to talk to you about your infidelity to your husband â€¦ your investments in arms production â€¦'
What other differences exist that are concealed behind a vast array of broad terms and categories? Do these actually help me handle complexity? We certainly want to fit in. We look out for preset models of society (more unpacking) we feel we could mostly be comfortable with - 'the English', the C of E, the abiding citizens, the club.
Other options are: political parties or groupings, workplace, crafts or trade unions, faith congregations, NGOs, sporting associations etc. We go through the motions.
But take our workplace. We either work aimlessly like headless chickens (is it 33% of our food that goes to waste?), or against each other (pollution, missiles) or against nature (lots of digging, deforestation, contamination of land, rivers and people). I look at the way we live and work as one, and I can only see the downside of this type of 'production' - menial, servile, and destructive.
What does this say about people? Why is there a shroud of silence ('omertÃ ') over our dayjobs? Should one give up on caring?
Say the 'p' word and there's no holding you. Everything becomes fuzzy and hearsay, vile and depersonalised, smug and unfeeling. We are only too obliging to deprecate others. Here's a digest of things that are said or printed or muttered:
Â§ what people want, the asylum seekers, the eco nazis
Â§ the wider audience, the Westminster pack, industry 'fear and loathe'
Â§ the 'bastards', witchhunt, the rogue states, the masses
Â§ students eat a lot of crap
I should add my own choice of words, 'the non-initiated', 'headless chickens', to finally round this off.
It would certainly take some convincing to change a life-long bad habit.
Do we care?
Care appears to be embroidered in the very fabric of society, from charities and churches, trusts and aid organisations, to individual and corporate donors. No social or political entity exists without some form of declaration stating that it cares for the disadvantaged or less privileged. It may be the blind or the victims of abuse and disasters, or it may be animals that are themselves the victims of special cruelty.
One such entity is permaculture, whence peoplecare originated. Permaculture is a group, or association, that promotes organic farming and gardening, and with it the possibility of an alternative mode of being. For, proclamations apart, could care really be said to inform our acts and deeds? The focus is now on permaculture as an instance of care. I'll then return briefly to the great divisions in society that tear us asunder.
Peoplecare needs to be looked at properly (if we can) if we want to make some sense of living.
Peoplecare in Permaculture
The seventies, or the decade of permanence.
Permaculture (PC) is what agriculture should be. The picking and plucking, the harvesting and foraging, the mimicking of nature and the wonder of it all.
It is indicative of PC is that it is a no-dig farming system. What does this tell us, and how could it be so? What happens is that you build the soil rather than plough or rotivate it. Such disturbance would both disrupt soil life and break the finer meshes of the below-ground fungal system, or mycorrhiza, that feeds the root that feeds the soil that feeds the plant.
It is, I believe, what the Soil Association calls the feed-the-soil-not-the-plant approach to farming (with the plant being the last in the food/nutrient chain). Or, as somebody said, it is both a matter of sensitivity and of being grounded, 'We have one soil only. Let's not soil it!'
Still a small matter? Not quite. Contrast this with the digging, extracting, gashing, gutting of the earth surface for minerals, rocks, water, constant clearing, nuclear explosion, poisoning, and neglect, and you begin to get a feel that all this is bonkers. It is, to be more precise, a frightening act of war against our natural world that we enact every day as a prelude to the other horrors against our own kind (also enacted every day).
A no-till farming method reveals an attitude towards our land, and towards other people whose land it is, which is of care and respect.
PC draws on a number of traditional (not modern) agriculture practices. Many of its features - no-digging, imitation of nature and a realisation that everything farms (ie animals, wind, water) - are not new (enthusiasm apart!) and can be traced back to a host of ancient, traditional agricultural practices across the world.
Herodotus, the Greek traveller and historian, tells us:
When the river [the Nile] overflows the countryside the whole of Egypt becomes a sea, and only the towns stick out above the surface of the water, rather like the islands of the Aegean. When this happens, people take boats across the land and not just along the waterways. â€¦ No men anywhere else gain so much from the soil with so little labour: farmers escape the toil of breaking up the soil with a plough or a hoe; the river rises unaided, irrigates the fields, and then drains away; seeds are broadcast and trodden in by pigs; these animals even thresh the harvested grain.
Permaculture would argue that it is this intimacy with our soil and land that has been lost. Herodotus (mindful as he was of the harsh social and physical conditions of peasants and farmers in his native country, see also below 'Sparta as a Metaphor') just couldn't help comment on Egyptian farmers gaining 'so much from the soil', escaping the toil, and on how rivers rise 'unaided'.
Of course, that was Egypt. The Nile is no longer what it used to be, nor is the Gulf Stream for that matter. The reason? Man's wilful wrecking of nature's physical stock. And yet, both the Nile and the Gulf Stream afford us with two examples of what natural ecosystems would be like if untampered with. They show how man, vegetation, animals, climates and microclimates, soils, streams, landforms etc can be made to influence each other in a beneficial way. If only.
Against this backdrop, permaculture would submit that people anywhere can only profit from a companion nature.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two Australian ecologists, developed permaculture as a stable agricultural system "in response to the rapidly growing use of destructive post-war industrial agricultural methods that were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tones of soil from previously fertile landscapes."
Permaculture means either permanent culture or permanent agriculture. It makes sense for the same word, culture, applies to both the cultivation of the land and the cultivation of the mind. But why permanence?
Because permanence is dynamic and a life force.
Lady Eve Balfour, a founder of the Soil Association, made it explicit that permanence is the fertility of the soil, this great carrying capacity of our living earth. "The criteria for a sustainable agriculture" she said "can be summed up in one word - permanence, which means adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely; â€¦"
On the site of an abandoned slate quarry, one man recalls: "In such seclusion, so far from the pressures under which most people live, I had the feeling that something new, some fresh and saner way of living might be demonstrated." That man was Gerard Morgan-Grenville and the site he helped to make permanent was the Centre for Alternative Technology, near Machynlleth, Wales.
Permaculture prides itself of its three principles: earthcare, peoplecare and fair shares. But where does permaculture (the group / association) stand exactly with regard to peoplecare? I think the group's track record is excellent if my few remarks so far are anything to go by.
Talking about people however is not an easy subject as I have been trying to say. Nor does it sell like popcorn or arms. We certainly have no trouble getting on each other's nerves. We fall out. We spend a lot of time agreeing to disagree. Do we know why? Could time be spared to find out?
The chances are that on joining a group, any group, we also disrupt it at the same time, and this because the great divisions in society are lodged in the individual as well. We come full circle.
Some instances are: our education, background, age, gender, vision, sensitivity, hangs-up, rank or status, greed or breed, anxieties, diffidence, ethnic group, taste, hopes, aspirations â€¦
It's a total mismatch, and it shows - in our meetings and encounters, clashes and skirmishes, feuds and outrages, pet hates and grand vendettas (all this not being necessarily specific to PC, the points are more general). With so much division, no wonder we all go our different ways!
There is some great work to be done to build a viable group.
Building the Group
Is PC handling these problems properly? Has it got the thinking behind it? Is building the group in the face of so much division and individual isolation getting as much attention as building and topping up the soil?
PC is of course a young group and prone to the trappings of green modern living - making yourself visible, marketing and selling, must-recycle, a bit of solar technologies, tough on sustainability.
I disagree with this strand of permaculture. For instance, PC shouldn't be what I call the three 'Ds' - Design, Diplomas and Databases. Leaving aside diplomas and dbs (all must-have stuff), I think the emphasis should be (more) on gardens and gardeners, on locality and locals, on waterways and waterway-masters.
The problem with Design to describe PC is oversimplification. Mollison might have said "Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of â€¦ " but the man also said "People think I'm crazy when I tell them to go home and garden.", followed by "Now, there is no doubt at all that the place to start is at the doorstep." And Robert Hart in his book Forest Gardening "I had a vision of mini-forests in millions of back gardens." Or Ken Fern, "We need to create gardens, woodlands and plants which are in harmony with Nature."
Scale it up, and a garden soon becomes a woodland, your bioregion, a 'speck of the universe' (Peter Harper), or even the Garden of Eden. This is most certainly what Mollison and Holmgren had in mind when they said, "Perhaps we seek the Garden of Eden, and why not? We believe that a low-energy, high-yielding agriculture is a possible aim for the whole world, and that it needs only human energy and intellect to achieve this."
If this is the grand picture, PC seems to say to me to start small anyway and garden is a colourful description for a smallholding, the household, the family, the cottage farm, the neighbourhood.
If the issues are food and goods miles, well then the task is plant those onions and trees to reset those food and goods miles to nought. If the issues are clean water, renewables, building materials, and energy, all this can be done within the compass of your bioregional garden (grow your food / grow your house) thanks to a combination, in the case of energy supply, of wind and solar energy, biomass, tidal, geothermal, hydrogen, mini-hydro, and micropower turbines.
We need nature and we need each other, and local doesn't mean piecemeal and isolated. It means investing in human ingenuity to carry out the necessary work and research work allowing for the effective use of local and regional energy sources. This automatically precludes us from carrying on with the running down of what's left of fossil fuels and from using nuclear power as if people didn't matter.
Any prediction of an energy crisis is based on present patterns of consumption. Do we want to leave these patterns unchanged? If so, consumption is the polluter, not the type of energy we use. Once we go local we would stop this nonsense that everyone and everything has to be transported and wheeled around for the fun of it.
So gardens are important. I may want to put it in simpler terms still. I don't see how being 100% self-sufficient in making our fresh salads all year round is beyond our means and capabilities.
It would be the beginning of a garden or cottage economy. Whether it is food, water, or energy, I believe it is time to stop delegating responsibility for this production to any agency, governments included, and to supply our homes with the stuff accordingly.
A garden evokes a sense of belonging, of first steps, of observable connections. Design on the other hand is pretty close to a misreading of what PC could and should be. It is fashionable and mainstream, and not only that. Being factual (ie, gardens and gardeners, fresh salads, pursuing the aim of 'a low-energy, high-yielding agriculture') is much to be preferred to that big twaddle called sustainability. Why is PC sheepishly buying into this new fad?
First, you will recall that for Lady Eve sustainable agriculture and soil fertility are one and the same. It may just be necessary to remind ourselves once more that fertility means the carrying capacity of the earth to support or sustain us. At times we say Mother Earth, and this not without a reason.
You may have also seen the word 'sustainable' in a different context: sustainable fat profits, sustainable growth, sustainability appraisals, sustainable community action, and, last but not least, the ubiquitous sustainable development. I won't go into any of that at all. It strikes me however that this has nothing to do with the original use and application of the term.
Further, sustainability is used to indicate the need to cut down our CO2 levels, lessen our impact on the planet, walk lightly, turn off that dripping tap, maximise solar gain, and Give Shell Hell. Even so, is it not time now to do what we preach and by doing so start using those much talked about renewables (this is key to most 'green' things!)? (On cutting down, see 'A Benchmark'.)
Thus have you thought of forms of co-operations that would enrich our lives, of tapping into our inner treasures, of discovering the world around us of life forms, of plants and of water, of sharing these findings, of valuing goodwill, of convivial living? Can you separate quality of life from the quality of our daily engagements?
It takes time and goodwill to knit people together to carry out any of the above tasks (co-operation etc). I'd rather take this to be our priority.
To return to permaculture, sustainability has crept in there as well, viz. the mandatory references ('Designing for Sustainability') reinforced by more specific ones such as the Building Sustainable Communities courses run by the association. This is mainly due to inertia and the fact that, like design, the word is perceived to be fashionable and, therefore, something resembling common knowledge. Yes, you only have to say something three times for it to become received wisdom, like education x 3. That must be wrong. I'll argue that in practice sustainability is empty rhetoric. To explain this let me go back to permanence and peoplecare.
For Mollison, in many telling ways, permanence is the ability to "plant a pecan or citrus â€¦ and know it will not be cut down by our children's children." A bit authoritarian you might say, thinking perhaps that what our grandchildren do must surely be their business.
Not quite, and this for two reasons. First, it is impossible to imagine we can actually do anything without that ability (to plant etc) and without that knowing (no vandalism, thank you).
By way of example, would you in fact ever be able to make plans to build a school today knowing that your next government will be elected on a mandate to knock it down? How badly would you be affected if you were made to realise that activities are underway to write off tomorrow your accomplishments of today?
Second, what Mollison is hinting at is that we all ought to be accountable for the upkeep of the planet and all that (which plainly we are not), but even that is not enough. Our grandchildren will have to be accountable as well.
Thus bearing in mind all the uncritical talk about what we should do for our next generations (not to compromise their future etc), permanence reveals something the latter (or any government and busybody) shouldn't do to us - things like, again, not to undo our efforts, sanctioning that what we do now is for blooming nothing.
These efforts are, I believe, what Mollison and Holmgren refer to as our 'human energy and intellect.' Thus there's more to permaculture than mere sustainable development - and this is the fertility of the soil, a saner way of living, and working with a certain knowing. Energy and intellect. 'Homing' and gardening. Permanence and peoplecare.
Is this a permanent vs sustainable debate? No it isn't, for the two terms do not exclude each other. Permanence, like every other single utterance, could be made a mockery of and in the real world you stand a good chance of being rebutted and ridiculed as to what 'it' means in an impermanent world. There exists after all another world of ephemera, media and trivia.
And yet we wouldn't be talking about our offspring and future generations without that underpinning of a life that through them extends beyond our own. Permanence is acting now to procure our food and the things we need (roof over our heads etc). Posterity represents the long haul. It has always been like that.
Maybe what is needed is a benchmark. Let me try something else then, and see whether permanence has a place in our hearts.
Abridging, Wendell Berry, the American farmer and historian, wrote that he saw himself as part of a long procession, tagging along a dotted line of five generations. Before him, his grandparents and parents are alive in his memory, after him his son and grandson are alive in his sight. ('Life is a Miracle')
Five Generations. We now know. We know how many people there are in a household, what they do, we have now a family history, a story to tell, we know how knowledge is imparted, what skills are needed in an changing farming environment, we can feel a sense of space and purpose, and we now have a term of reference that can be converted into rock solid policies and standards. We can build our human and social habitat by adopting the guiding principle of Five Generations. This is applied permanence and vision. Another example follows.
South of Cambridge, UK, outside the village of Bassingbourn, and here the guiding principle is a well established, and still evolving, Five Generations pattern: "Guilden Gate offers a holistic vision that blends historic wisdom and modern technologies in one practical example of a more sustainable way of life. â€¦ We are Simon and Jacqueline Saggers the current generation of the Saggers family who have lived and worked in Bassingbourn since the 1600s. â€¦" [emphasis added]. (the Saggers' website)
We can now perhaps cut down on our carbon emission by a fair amount, dispense with the misery of commuting, we have now the perfect excuse to reuse, restore and preserve, we can therefore get people housed and jobbed, abolish empty homes and unemployment, keep an eye on things, find out that the elderly needn't die of hypothermia in confined bedrooms, and we can now begin to realise that there is value in inclusion.
This is where permanence and sustainability converge, with care looking a bit healthier now resembling a warmer and more all-embracing smile.
Participating in our Affairs
Working the land is participating in our affairs. What Herodotus, Lady Eve and scores of others are saying is that there is no toil in land- or locality-based activities. The only input needed is our presence and co-presence; the only fertiliser our companionship; the only intervention our maintaining soil fertility. The one guiding principle that of the Five Generations and beyond.
Reality is multi-faceted. There is also a historic dimension to contend with. If working the land comes with a historical cachet of slavery, hard physical work, famine and peasants' revolts, this is due to lies, pack of lies and more of the same.
Let's see what I mean by more of the same.
Sparta as a Metaphor
Some Spartans were exceedingly rich, while others had very little; the land was owned by a wealthy few.
... the ephors, on entering office (each year), declared war on the helots, so that killing them would be religiously permissible.
The helots were the peasants or enslaved populations who economically supported the wealthy few. They were killed (in sufficient numbers) so that they would not pose a threat to the status quo. The threat was ever present for the helots outnumbered the Spartans.
The ephors formed the executive, elected to uphold the law. Citizen status was granted to selective sections of the population, and amongst them to the Spartiates, or full-time warriors.
It would have been beneath the Spartiates and other soldiers to engage in any land-based work or social or economic activity. War on the helots had to be declared first (a rite of passage in fact, or a mere technicality) before the young Spartiates could intervene.
External, expansionist wars were waged, or at other times these were defensive wars as when alliances were sought, for instance with Athens, to fend off the Persian invasion.
The Spartans were adept to lying and deceiving as a way of life. If caught stealing, they were punished not for stealing but for being apprehended. Lying and deception were rewarded. According to Anton Powell, author of Athens and Sparta, the typical Spartiate was described by both Plato and Aristotle "as gentle to free men but savage to slaves â€¦"
Rings a bell or two?
Fleshed out properly, the example of Sparta provides interesting parallels with the social, political and military order of most countries today.
Think of wars, past and present, fought in the name of religion and new religions, think of the few and the many, the rich and the poor, think of murder and rapine, work out why the UK no longer needs her farmers, name the politicians, heads of state or captains of industry best known for being 'gentle', name those best known for showing but utter contempt and indifference for human suffering behind a mask of glazed compassion, what do you make of 'free men'?, who cheats, who steals, guess what is 'our' most prized 'possession', think of any modern ephor - chiefs and plenipotentiaries, legislators and governors - on entering office.
The parallels with today are not merely interesting, they are striking. A major issue here is ownership of the land, from which all other 'wealth' descends (resources, agriculture, mining, buildings). Possession is our major problem and headache. With possession come forms of control over other people, hence the macro-division between the few and the many. The outcome is continual conflict and war.
What has been tried so far? Here is a makeshift list: protests, revolts, mutinies, gunpowder plots, ambushes, martyrdom, toppling, revolutions, campaigns, vigils and lobbying. They have never worked, and will never work. A good reason for this is that out of the ranks of the oppressed (the survivors), given the present power structure, you always get tomorrow's oppressors.
No care can be had when one fresh batch of oppressors follows another. No poverty can be made history when a new poverty is being worked on. No culture can be made to flourish in a barren landscape.
I don't have the full answers to my questions for I believe, predictably, that everything must be a joint effort. Peoplecare is something to do with renewing our vows and relationships with other fellow beings. Nothing can be done without that pledge.
Land and people are indissolubly linked. To care is to connect.
To add an article please send to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject as "Web Article".