What Permaculture Can Teach Us About Commons

As a developed set of social practices, techniques and ethical norms, permaculture has a lot to say to the world of the commons.  This is immediately clear from reading the twelve design principles of permaculture that David Holmgren enumerated in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Practices Beyond Sustainability.  It mentions such principles as “catch and store energy,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,” “produce no waste,” and “design from patterns to details.”

My friendship and work with ecological design expert Dave Jacke have only intensified my conviction that permaculturists and commoners need to connect more and learn from each other.  The value of such dialogues was brought home to me by a public talk and an all-day workshop that I co-organized with Dave.  The events, which in combination we called “Reinventing the Commons,” were an opportunity for 35 participants to learn about ecosystem dynamics and the commons, and for Dave and me to learn from each other in public.  How might we build better commons by mimicking the principles and patterns of natural ecosystems?

Dave’s talk on the evening of January 20 was a great introduction to this topic.  He started by showing a chart plotting the “industrial ascent” of human civilization as fueled by cheap fossil fuels, growing populations and profligate pollution and waste.  (See the yellow line in the chart; based on a diagram originally by David Holmgren (http://futurescenarios.org.)

Dave’s quick historical overview started with tribal commons in the prehistoric era, a time when people self-organized to obtain enough food and shelter to survive.  Societies began to take the shape of feudal commons in Roman and Medieval times, at least in England and Europe.  Lords owned the land and claimed privileged access to certain resources of the landscape while allowing commoners to manage other resources themselves.

When the feudal system began to collaborate with the budding market system in the 17th century, we saw the rise of a new sort of state and market system with a very different logic and ethic.  Soon a series of enclosures privatized and marketized wealth previously managed collectively.  Enclosures were a violent dispossession of commoners, who were left as landless peasants with little choice but to become wage-slaves and paupers in the early industrial cities.

The commons, once a dominant form of social organization, was supplanted by the state and then the market.  In no time the market and state were colluding to build a new vision of “progress” based on an extractive growth economy.  The market/state system has in fact built the modern, technological society that we inhabit today.   

But can this system continue?  Can the planetary ecosystem – and climate – survive capitalism?  One of the most revealing slides that Dave showed was this one showing the role of different governance systems over history – commons, state and markets.

The chart also shows four scenarios for our future from humanity’s current high point of energy consumption, which probably can only decline.  Each of the four scenarios is likely associated with a dominant type of governance system– the market, state, commons, or none of the above.

The market system is clearly the mode for continuing our current trajectory of tech-driven economic growth – a scenario that many argue is bio-geophysically impossible.  Growth at this scale would simply entail too much ecological destruction and instability.

A second scenario, which many European nations are pursing and that well-intentioned US liberals often support, seeks to achieve a stable, long-term balance between growth and ecological limits.  This “green economy” approach would require a dominant state role to discipline and guide markets – not exactly a plausible scenario in today’s world of unfettered capitalism.  It may also not be ecologically sustainable given the decreased and decreasing carrying capacity of the planet due to human impacts.

A third approach would seek to navigate a “regenerative descent” from the peak-oil consumption that has characterized modern times—reducing our footprint by descending from the energy peak, while simultaneously regenerating the health of the ecosystems that support us.  But instead of looking to either the market or state to be the dominant force of governance (both are too deeply committed to economic growth), the commons scenario would look to decentralized nonmarket provisioning, community-accountable markets, and new limits on extraction.  Permaculture obviously has much to say about these themes.

A final scenario amounts to a “you’re on your own” approach in which every individual is pitted against everyone else and a survivalist “lifeboat ethic” prevails.  Not an option to which we wish to aspire!

Commons & Permaculture as Ways to Manage “Regenerative Descent”

You can guess which one we commoners believe is most ecologically credible and necessary.  The question then becomes, said Jacke, “How do we learn how to rebuild ecosystems from the ground up and the sky down?  How do we make a graceful and ethical descent from the energy peak that we have probably reached?”

Much of the answer, he believes, lies in “devising new—or ‘new/old’—types of human cultures.”

This is why the commons and permaculture need to enter into a new dialogue.  Permaculture is not just about agriculture and ecological design, but concerns designing whole human cultures, including social and economic structures for stewarding ecosystems.  The commons, for its part, is very focused on the socio-ecological principles of self-governance.  Commoning is all about aligning social practices, governance and culture with the special character of local landscapes.

A big question is how we should understand culture.  Jacke believes that culture consists of four primary components.  The first three – resources, technology, and social and economic structures – can be designed in different ways, but Jacke argued that what really animates a culture is its “inner landscape,” which functions as a set of operating instructions.  (See chart below.) 

Somehow, a culture’s inner values, myths and aspirations must be brought into alignment with deep ecological principles, said Jacke.  That encapsulates the challenge we face in pursuing a “regenerative descent,” or the “commons scenario,” in the wake of peak energy.

Fortunately, said Jacke, the human species has a vast upside potential.  Quoting Stuart Hill, Jacke said:  “The human species is psycho-socially highly underdeveloped -- and paradoxically, that is our greatest reason for hope.”  If we were as psycho-socially developed as we could be, genetically, we’d be screwed.  But because we have so much potential for psycho-social growth, we can work our way out of this mess.  And the commons is a key piece of this.  But we need to look for solutions that challenge us on the inside.”

That is why the commons is not just about “managing resources,” but equally an exploration of how to change our “inner landscape.”  Jacke noted that the problem is that, as The Talmud says “We see things not as they are.  We see things as we are.” Who we think we are affects everything else.

Beyond Human Separation and Alienation

Jacke noted that, when he does workshops and asks people why ecosystems and societies fail, the heart of the problem always boils down to “human separation, disconnection and alienation.”  “Our culture believes that humans are separate from nature, that mind and matter are separate, and that consciousness and matter are separate.  That’s what the story of Adam and Eve is all about – our separation from nature, which is the story of Western culture.”

Of course, Jacke added:  “It’s not true – we’re not separate.  But the self-separation, induced through trauma, is itself a trauma, and has split ourselves internally.”

The best way to heal this separation within ourselves, and between ourselves and the more-than-human, is to mimic natural ecosystems, Jacke urged.  “The core strategy is conscious ecological design – design that is intentional, deliberate and mindful of nature.”

Jacke said that he once thought of “design” as “planning in a systematic manner.”  But he has come to realize that the design process really amounts to promoting “deliberate emergence” as a “co-creative participant.”  The point is not to impose solutions, which only continues our separation from nature and each other, inevitably leading to failure.  Our goal should be to “mimic natural systems” by trying to achieve “close external functional resemblances with it.  We have to ‘re-member’ ourselves as part of nature.  Ecosystem mimicry is a frame for reminding ourselves that we are nature.”

The Paleolithic Fish Weir Commons

We moderns tend to forget that we are deeply embedded in nature, and not apart from it.  Jacke helped emphasize this point by describing what could be one of the earliest documented commons in human history, represented by an 8,000-year-old fish weir off the coast of Denmark. 

Archeologists discovered the quarter-kilometer-long fence-like wooden structure beneath the ocean, with its tight web of wood still intact (Divers couldn’t even put their fingers between any cracks!)  The weir was built to direct fish and eels along the underwater fence to a wooden cage where they were trapped and held for consumption over the winter months.  Such fish weirs had to be rebuilt every year, and sometimes more frequently if there were storms.  Each weir required 6,000-7,000 very straight hazelwood poles 4-5 meters long — hard to come by unless one manages the hazel bushes through coppicing.  This means the hazel would be cut, and then allowed to sprout more shoots that then grew for about ten years to produce a new crop of straight poles of a size needed for the weir.  Hazel bushes managed this way can yield poles again and again for hundreds of years.

“The implications of this fish weir are vast,” said Jacke.  Its existence means that there was a well-organized community of people who were systematically harvesting vast quantities of coppice to build the weir.  “Based on current coppice-forestry design figures, such as the spacing of stumps and the time needed to grow new wood,” said Jacke, “it would take at least 1.7 acres to be able to harvest 6,000-7000 wooden poles.”

If we consider that each plot of 1.7 acres would require ten years to grow wood of sufficient size, then continuously producing the fish weirs would require a minimum of 17 acres under the most intensive coppice-management practices we know of today.  This would represent a major organized work effort and the transmission of cultural knowledge from generation to generation, especially considering that a single ten-year rotation would consume a significant percentage of a Paleolithic human’s lifespan.

Remember:  This was a time before agriculture had been invented and glaciers were not long gone from Europe.  There were no state power structures or market structures.  So this fish weir could only have been produced through some sort of collective social structure – a commons, said Jacke.

At this, a kind of stunned silence settled over the audience.  Wow.  The commons has clearly been a part of our deep history as a species.  Surely it will be a big part of our future as we cross the threshold of peak energy.