Some thoughts on permaculture and theology…

Everything that ever was is with us still

This is a line from a poem I wrote some time ago, in which I used some ideas pinched from philospher Timothy Morton, whose writing has done much to shine a light on the way we are in the anthopocene age.

His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.

From The Guardian, here.

On the micro level, this kind of thinking chimes well with ideas around permaculture, which seeks to replace consumptive and destructive industrial/capitalist/enlightenment methods with systems modelled on flourishing natural ecosystems. It is of course a feature of these ecosystems that they are circular – that each element of the system is dependent upon others and in turn forms the raw material for the next.

Rather than seeing the whole as a blank space in which elements compete for ascendency, the reality of natural systems is that they exist and sustain themselves by co-operation, interdependency.

Another way to put this is that rather than an input-output system in which resources are fed in one end and products spewed out the other, a system designed around permaculture principles includes the whole cycle within its model of production, including the generation of raw materials and the recycling and reuse of waste.

The most common way we hear the word ‘permaculture’ used is in relation to small scale food production. This is problematic as increasingly this is how the word is understood, rather than the much more dynamic transformative promise that it contains in relation to wider design principles. Having said that, it is a very useful way to think about my own attempts to grow food, allowing me to evolve my small holding practice in these ways;

  1. I do not worry so much about ‘organic’, but try to only use things that can be re-used and re-purposed. This means that ‘doing as little harm’ to the natural world is built in.
  2. If I need something, I try to find it within what I already have, even if it is ‘messy’, for example fences made from felled rhododendrons.
  3. If I know I will create a waste product, I try to find a use for it in advance. The obvious part of this is compost, but I also make deliberate use of chicken bedding or even the soil in the chicken run.
  4. I try to work with what I have – the west of Scotland climate, the heavy soil, the forest I live within, seeking to allow these to shape my practices, rather than try to alter things to fit other models of growing elsewhere. This leads me to raised beds, hugelkultur and forest gardens. I grow watercress in a stream and create ponds to increase helpful biodiversity.

Don’t read me as claiming towards climate sainthood. I have poly tunnels. I still buy seed compost. I make all sorts of compromises, including running petrol machines to cut and mulch. No paradise is perfect.

Which brings me to the theology of all of this.

Everything that ever was is with us still

We who try to understand our spirituality do so – unwittingly or otherwise – within the landscape of meaning that our circumstance give us. This is an unavoidable truth, made clearer when considering the difference between enlightenment and post-modern mindsets. The first, dominated by the book, by the ‘rise of mankind’, by ‘human progress’ towards industrialisation, by white Europeans. Meanwhile, postmodernism brought to us the chaos of competing information streams, the conspiracy theories, the doomsday realities of climate destruction, the tyrany and freedom of so-called individual choice. Do we accept the bias that these persepctives give to our spiritual meanderings? Can we ever hope to move beyond them?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. The right one might be how can we include them? After all, post-modernism is not just a repudiation, a replacement of the enlightenment, it is also a product of it.

So it is that many of us who have left behind older understandings of faith and spirituality might do well to check ourselves on some of the slash-and-burn destruction we have poured on the places we left behind. They are with us still. They were not wasted.

That is not the same as saying that everything goes. When waste material is put into my compost bin, it is transformed.

Or to put it another way, it is redeemed.

Or to put it another way again, it is included and transcended.

I am no (spiritual) permaculture saint, so I perhaps tend to waste more than I should. I am sloppy with my recycling and easily pulled towards a shiny new thing, often forgetting that the point here is not just the end product, rather it is the life it is embedded within.

It is the whole cycle, not just the point of swing.

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