Tom Smith: Here's an essay dealing with permaculture, civilization, agriculture and the ancient Chinese philosophy of daoism (commonly known as Taoism in the West). Notes and bibliography are found right at the bottom.
The links between these areas and a critique of civilization are, in my opinion, very real. For example, John Zerzan has referred to Permaculture as one possible transitional tool in the move away from civilization, while he has also spoken of Daoism not unfavourably, as the essay below will show.
The links between these areas and a critique of civilization are, in my opinion, very real. For example, John Zerzan has referred to Permaculture as one possible transitional tool in the move away from civilization, while he has also spoken of Daoism not unfavourably, as the essay below will show.
Self-So and Self-Sow: An Exploration of the Parallels between Permaculture and Daoism
“The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish something. Originally there was no reason to progress, and nothing that had to be done. We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a “movement” not to bring anything about.”
Masanobu Fukuoka (1978: p.158)
Daoism, according to Nelson (2009: p.294), “offers a philosophical basis for a non-reductive naturalistic ethics in the widest sense of these words.” However, Wawrytko (2005) points out that philosophical daoism, even when deemed to be of ecological relevance, suffers consistent denials that its principles can be implemented in practice. Using core tenets of daoism, such as wu wei and ziran, this essay shall argue that permaculture – first established in Australia but now with a worldwide presence – is a transformative practice with its roots found firmly in daoist thought. Initially, some reasons for arguing that permaculture is not an adequate reflection of dao, are discussed and problematised. Then, reasons are outlined for arguing that permaculture is in fact a remarkably widespread expression of (daoist) philosophy as a way of life in the 21st century.
Permaculture, somewhat like dao, is a non-static concept which is difficult, to the point of being impossible, to define in text . It was, however, founded in the 1970s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, as “an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man” (Holmgren, 2002; p.xix).
The term itself was initially a contraction of permanent agriculture, indicating a new perennial polycultural form of food production, contrasted with the short-lived, core annual crops such as wheat, rice and corn, the big three which now comprise the majority of the world’s calorific intake (Bruinsma, 2003).
Conventional annual-based agriculture (be it organic or chemical-based), is posited in permaculture thought to be a leading historical cause of ecological destruction and civilisational collapse, depending as it does on anthropocentric subjugation of the natural world, natural habitat destruction and expropriation, de-forestation, release of soil carbon through ploughing, leaching of soil nutrients from exposed topsoil and other impacts (Diamond, 2006; Dale & Gill Carter, 1955; Ponting, 1991; Holmgren, 2011). As Dale and Gill Carter (1955:p.3) state, “with the progress of civilization, man has learned many skills, but only rarely has he learned to preserve his source of food. Paradoxically, the very achievements of civilized man have been the most important factors in the downfall of civilizations.” Along this line of thought, leading permaculture writer and teacher, Toby Hemenway (2006), provocatively titled one of his essays with the question “Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?”
The growth in permaculture, as a grass-roots ecological movement, since its foundation has been rapid, with one of the few academic papers engaging the concept (Veteto & Lockyer, 2008) citing estimations that there are now 100,000 trained permaculture practitioners around the world. It has now also expanded as a concept, broadly symbolising permanent culture, rather than just permanent agriculture (Holmgren, 2002). In this latest formulation, it is has become a holistic design system for sustainable human settlements, comprising food, fibre and energy provision for local needs (Ibid.).
With the fundamental concept of permaculture outlined, it’s apt to now explore (and ultimately negate) two evident reasons for positing that permaculture is not, in fact, a grassroots expression of daoist philosophy in practice.
The discussion of permaculture above could be deemed anthropocentric on initial examination, contrasting with the firm non-anthropocentrism of Daoism seen, for example, in chapter 5 of the Daodejing:
Heaven and earth are not humane.
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The sage is not humane.
He regards all the people as straw dogs.
The early definition of permaculture, citing the utilisation of species “useful to man”, and discussing only human settlements, appears barely removed from ‘natural’ or organic agriculture and sustainable planning approaches. This however, is to do an injustice to concept’s deeper significance which, when carried out correctly, allows us to “withdraw from much of the agricultural landscape, and allow natural systems to flourish” (Mollison, 1988: p.7).
Indeed, the zoning approach in permaculture design (fig. 1) is less about an entire “withdrawal” and rather about cultivating and re-establishing tangible relationships between human settlements and non-human nature, blurring the nature/human dichotomy which has been so prevalent in Western philosophy going back at least to ancient Greece (e.g. see Plumwood, 1993), but absent in daoist thought. “Nature and society,” adds Nelson (2009: p.305) on this topic, “are not divided into unconnected opposites, and their mutuality implies that harming one equally harms the other.”
Fig. 1 – The Permaculture Zoning Approach
In one of the first systematic texts on forest gardening, written by leading permaculture instructor Patrick Whitefield (1996), the non-anthropocentricity inherent in permacultural methods becomes explicit:
We have no right ever to design a garden without making provision for wild plants and animals. We humans are only one species on the earth, and all the others have as much right to thrive and prosper as we do (p.9).
Permaculture also draws on indigenous Australian knowledge as a “primary source” (Holmgren, 2011), coming to many conclusions regarding the place of Homo Sapiens in nature which are starkly reminiscent of daoist thought:
For every scientific statement articulated on energy, the Aboriginal tribespeople of Australia have an equivalent statement on life. Life, they say, is a totality neither created nor destroyed. It can be imagined as an egg from which all tribes (life forms) issue and to which all return. The ideal way in which to spend one’s time is in the perfection of the expression of life, to lead the most evolved life possible, and to assist in and celebrate the existence of life forms other than humans, for all come from the same egg (Mollison, 1988: p.2).
For Fukuoka (1978), author of one of the foundational texts of the permaculture movement, The One-Straw Revolution, the form of cultivation he developed was a negation of the common belief that “there is nothing more splendid than human intelligence, that human beings are creatures of special value, and that their creations and accomplishments as mirrored in culture and history are wondrous to behold” (p.4). Thus, while focusing on sustainably feeding and housing humans, permaculture is so practically and philosophically qualitatively distinct from agriculture, that to deem it anthropocentric is as grave a misunderstanding as those who reduce daoism “to calculations and techniques of longevity and self-perfection reflecting in the end an anthropocentric and egotistical self-interest oblivious to plants and animals and the environment” (Nelson, 2009: p.295)
On Ethical Stringency
In one of the few overt statements of daoist influence, Bill Mollison (1988: p.3) says that, “for the sake of the earth itself,” in permaculture he “evolved a philosophy close to Taoism” from his “experiences with natural systems.”
Despite this, a legitimate objection could be posed that, as a conscious design system premised increasingly on design principles (most commonly used are the twelve principles formulated in David Holmgren’s Permaculture) and the core permaculture ethical norms of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share, permaculturists are drowning under normative prescriptions which the Daoist sage would surely balk at. After all, as stated by Nelson (2009), “classical Daoist texts seem to reject “ethics,” provided that ethics consists of rules, norms, and conventions organizing hierarchical and authority-driven social relations.”As opposed to taking inspiration from the preconscious state of the infant, a metaphor seen in the Daodejing and Chuang-Tzu’s Inner Chapters, permaculture instead ostensibly aims to cultivate “mature ethical behaviour” (Mollison, 1988: p.3).
A possible pathway beyond this problematization is contained, however, in David Holmgren’s (2002, p.xxvi) assertion that “Permaculture principles, both ethical and design, may be observed operating all around us.” The promethean culture of civilization, which now dominates well over half the world’s land area (Kareiva et al, 2007) exclusively for human ends, must be mitigated, if just for the sake of the 150-200 species going extinct every day according to UN estimates. Lives, both human and non-human are being lost, the ecosphere degraded, and permaculture principles are perhaps a mere urgent expression of what would be hoped to become pre-conscious processes in a world embodying dao.
This, in some ways, is analogous to the writing of that which cannot be expressed in writing - the Daodejing itself. John Zerzan’s interpretation (2008) tells us that in the “context of severe technological and political change...Taoism was an activist religion...on a collision course with the demands of higher civilization in China”. It was thus written as an urgent response to the transgressions of its day, in a similar fashion to that in which permaculture is formulated today.
According to John Gray (2002: p.113), “in Taoist thought, the good life comes spontaneously, but spontaneity is far from simply acting on the impulses that occur to us...It means acting dispassionately, on the basis of an objective view of the situation at hand...Seeing clearly means not projecting our goals into the world; acting spontaneously means acting according to the needs of the situation.” Indeed, the principles themselves when analyzed closely are expressions of this interpretation of the Dao: primarily, observe and interact. Then apply self-regulation and accept feedback, produce no waste, design from patterns to details, integrate rather than segregate, use small and slow solutions, use and value diversity, use edges and value the marginal, creatively use and respond to change.
Critically, permaculture doesn’t create exogenous moral codes to be imposed by some external force, instead obeying patterns seen, from extended observation and contemplation, to be immanent in the natural world. These patterns are deemed useless if merely theorised, and permaculture is about applying principles immanent in nature as a way of life. Holmgren (2002: p.xxv) argues forcefully, and in a way analogous to the embodied practice of eastern philosophies, that it is “hard for us to proceed very far with ethical frameworks without at the same time acting in the real world to develop ourselves as whole persons. The dangers of isolation of philosophical thought from an integrated existence are as great as the dangers of ignorance of the history of philosophy and ethics.”
Now, having put these two misgivings – on anthropocentrism and ethical prescriptions – aside, it’s time to examine some core daoist ideas which relate permaculture to some of the oldest philosophical texts in Chinese thought: ziran, wu wei and the question of permanence.
The Dao generates them,
Lets them grow,
Generating without possessing,
Acting without depending,
Rearing without ordaining:
This is called dark efficacy.
Daodejing, Chapter 51
A plethora of translations of ziran exist, including “so on its own,” “so of itself,” what is spontaneously so,” “that which is naturaly so,” (Yu, 2008) and “self-so” (Moeller, 2007). The “central importance” (Ibid: p.62) of this concept is seen in Chapter 25 of the daodejing:
Humans follow the earth as a rule.
The earth follows heaven as a rule.
Heaven follows the Dao as a rule.
The Dao follows its self-so as a rule.
Moeller’s commentary suggests that “there is nothing “behind” the Dao. The Dao is simply the course of nature that goes on by itself.” Such a characterisation is the antithesis of agriculture, which has always had fragmentation of any spontaneous, naturally-occurring landscapes as its driving force, replacing them with non-naturally occurring species, and in its latest manifestation, has had the overwhelming energy of fossil fuels “behind” it to aid the advance of civilization to a global scale. Permaculture, in contrast, takes this “most fundamental operational principle of the natural world” (Yu, 2008: p.4) – the principle of self-transformation and spontaneity - as the desideratum.
Fukuoka (1978: p.13) expounds his conviction that “crops grow themselves and should not have to be grown” and “that everything should be left to take its natural course.” Anyone who has ever spent prolonged periods actively growing their own food (even ‘organically’) knows just how demanding it can be physically, and also precarious regarding yield and the vagaries of pests and diseases. Incessant weeding, for example, is necessary to protect delicate domesticates which appear to have lost any semblance of true spontaneity. If they were allowed to be “self-so,” they would quickly perish under a mass of ziran (in the form of ‘weeds’) and the grower would quickly go hungry. It’s for this reason that Hemenway (2001) asks “why is gardening so much work?” He is explicit about the ‘un-naturalness’ of even contemporary organic horticulture:
Nature abhors bare soil, large blocks of a single plant type, and vegetation that’s all the same height and root depth. Nature doesn’t till, either. About the only time soil is disturbed in the wild is when a tree topples and its upturned roots churn the earth. Yet our gardens are virtual showcases of all these unnatural methods. Not to mention our broad-scale pesticide use and chemical fertilizer (p.7).
Permaculture techniques, such as forest gardening, by way of contrast, aim for low labour intensity (to be explored further in the next section) and work with, not against, a range of nature’s spontaneous processes. The ecological principle of natural succession, for example, whereby bare soil evolves in a variety of stages to climax vegetation (e.g. mature woodland) is factored into designs of forest gardens. Temperate forest gardening ultimately aims to mimic the structure of the climax vegetation of specific regions (in the case of the UK and Ireland, temperate forest) knowing that what grows naturally there will be inherently adaptable and ecologically sensible.
Such a forest isn’t artificially and instantaneously imposed on a landscape, either. It gradually evolves through complex interactions and the specifics of the local bioregion - with symbiosis, synergy and “crop guilds” being encouraged at every interval (Jacke & Toensmeier, 2005). Furthermore, the crops used are often robust and undomesticated enough to be literally self-sowing. ‘Weeds’ is the description usually put on such crops by the discriminating mind, with the irony being that when weeding a conventional bed, it’s often the case that what is removed is perfectly edible (e.g. fat hen, hairy bittercress, dandelion, burdock, nettles), but is there of its own volition, not the volition of humans.
Pruning is an example worth dwelling on here, used to portray this principle in The One-Straw Revolution. Fukuoka recounts how his early non-interventionist philosophy (perhaps analogous to the quietist reading of dao) led him initially to refrain from pruning his father’s established orchard in order to allow the trees to grow naturally. However, leaving an already un-natural setup to its own devices ended in disaster, “the trees were attacked by insects and almost two acres of mandarin orange trees withered and died.” Fukuoka (1978: p.16-17) uses comparisons with contemporary society to indicate what provoked such disaster:
Doctors and medicine become necessary when people create a sickly environment. Formal schooling has no intrinsic value, but becomes necessary when humanity creates a condition in which one must become “educated” to get along...To the extent that trees deviate from their natural form, pruning and insect extermination become necessary; to the extent that human society separates itself from a life close to nature, schooling becomes necessary. In nature, formal schooling has no function.
Thus, from this point forth, as would be apt in daoist thought, he asks himself constantly “what is the natural pattern?” After many failures, he finally started to recognize the patterning of ziran or discovered, as Mollison (1988: p.3) terms permaculture in a passage remarkably reminiscent of daoism, “a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems and people in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”
On a field trip by the author in 2011 to the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, UK - widely deemed to be the most well-established contemporary example of a temperate forest garden - red currants posed themselves as a comparable example. Normally, currant bushes are kept neatly pruned and confined to a meticulously-weeded soft-fruit area. However, in the forest garden, no pruning was deemed necessary (with, as in Fukuoka’s case, no evident consequences for yield). As the forest developed and changed, the currants spontaneously spread and moved along the edge of the ‘forest,’ adapting in relation to their surroundings over time, as they would do in their natural forest edge environment (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2 – Martin Crawford (author of How to Create a Forest Garden) of the Agroforestry Research Trust explaining the spontaneity of his red currant bushes.
Wu Wei (無爲)
“Putting “doing nothing” into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish. Lao Tzu spoke of non-active nature, and I think that if he were a farmer he would certainly practice natural farming.”
Fukuoka (1978: p.119)
Perhaps the most obvious congruence between adherence to dao and practice of permaculture is in the daoist principle of wu wei or ‘non-action’. Fukuoka (1978) famously termed his farming method “do-nothing” farming, and permaculture itself seeks always to use nature’s rhythms to lessen the burden of work which made itself manifest with the agricultural revolution.
Non-action in Daoism is a nuanced term and, like “do-nothing” farming, doesn’t mean literal exemption from engagement and action but rather an absence of “purposeful action guided by a certain conventional value” (Yu, 2008). As seen from Fukuoka’s orchard anecdote above, simply withdrawing immediately, while not excluded from the range of possibility, can often have devastating consequences. Mollison (1978) too acknowledges the bind we’re in by saying that we could ”perish by our own inaction” should we take the term too literally.
Chapter 29 of the Daodejing is one of the most explicit statements of the importance of non-action:
If one wants to take hold of the world,
And act on it-
I see that he will not succeed.
The world is a sacred vessel,
And not something that can be acted on.
Those who act on things will be defeated by them.
Those who take things in their hands will lose them.
Rather than directly intervening, as civilized humanity has for 10,000 years, to remake the world in its domesticated image; Daoism advocates a radical simplification of action, and a removal of unnecessary intervention. Daodejing (chapter 32) clarifies this by advocating “mastery of cessation” or of “knowing when to stop” (zhi zhi).
Seamlessly in accordance with this, Fukuoka (1978: p.15) comes to a philosophical approach which asks “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?””When you get down to it,” he concludes, “there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.” This is exactly the ‘decreasing’ spoken about in the Daodejing, chapter 48:
To decrease and to decrease even more
So that “doing nothing” is reached.
Doing nothing, and nothing is undone.
Daoist, and explicitly permacultural, “negative ethics of non-action” (Moeller, 2007: p.46) are well summarized by Wawrytko (2005: p.90) who states that “all vestiges of our estrangement from Dao as engendered by civilization, must be removed,” involving three successive realignments:
- It’s not what you think that matters – but what you unthink.
- It’s not what you do that matters – but what you undo.
- We can’t work against the natural flow (zi-ran), or even with that flow; rather we must participate in, play within the natural flow.
Before concluding, it’s important to look at one final aspect of the relationship between dao and permaculture – the question of permanence. Famously, the concepts of impermanence and change are central pillars of much Eastern philosophical thought (Capra, 1992:p.29). It’s thus logical that a practice placing so much emphasis on permanence as to name itself permanent (agri-)culture is incompatible with that line of thought which, for example, holds that “the Dao...is thoroughly within the continuous, reproductive process of change – it is this very process” (Moeller, 2007:p.122).
Such a conclusion would be premature, however, and the paradox of being permanent yet impermanent, changing yet unchanging, makes sense in the context of the paradoxical thought that is necessitated in daoism. Chapter 16 is central to this discussion:
To know permanence – this is clarity.
To not know permanence – this is error.
With errors the unfortunate occurs
Indeed, the unfortunate is occurring at an ever-quickening pace and permaculture, as well as daoism, posit a way to bring a dynamic permanence to a world characterised by short-termism, techno-fixes and spiritual malaise. The daoist sage, interprets Moeller (p.40), “has to study natural cycles of permanence: the yearly “return” of the plants, for instance, which sustains life in an agricultural society – or the returning course of the “heavenly” (celestial) bodies that establishes the yearly sequence of time. To know and master permanence qualifies one for being a sage ruler.” Importantly, this concept of permanence “is different, for instance, from the Christian notions of eternity which conceive of a dimension of the divine that is beyond mundane temporality” (Ibid, p.120).
Fukuoka (1978: p.21), whose thought is drenched in concepts of a humble impermanence, still argues that “Nature does not change, although the way of viewing nature invariably changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.”
The metaphor of the wheel, seen in the Daodejing, is perhaps helpful in clarifying this coupling of permanence and impermanence. Constant change and return are contained in the ever-turning spokes and rim, while the hub [“the non-moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity,” according to Fukuoka (1978: p.20)] moves without moving, an “empty pivot of change” (Moeller, 2007:p.6). “The sage and the Dao manifest the pivot. They are permanent and without presence, action, or speech within the realm of continuous change, action, and speech” (Ibid.).
Despite conflicting assertions by outsiders that his natural farming is either primitive and backward, or the pinnacle of innovation, “Few are able to grasp correctly that natural farming arises from the unmoving and unchanging centre of agricultural development“(Fukuoka, 1978: p.21).
The above analysis, taking in such concepts as wu wei, ziran, ecological design and permanence, has aimed to contextualise the now-worldwide permaculture movement, perhaps embodying the very ‘”movement” not to bring anything about’ which Fukuoka sought in the opening quote of this essay.
For thousands, permaculture holds a key to making a qualitative shift away from a ‘civilized’ (agri-) culture which subjugates the natural world, thus breaking down the oppositional logic of the cultivated field’s boundaries and reintegrating human habitation into the surrounding ecology.
A clear view of the demonstrated roots of permaculture in daoist, and other, thought will allow the movement to remain true to its founding philosophy of harmony with the natural world, without being enfeebled into a utilitarian design system for human ends.
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 Something not agreed upon by all commentators, e.g. see Goldin (2005).
 As, famously, “if it can be specified as a Dao, it is not a permanent Dao” (Moeller, 2007). Similarly, Holmgren (2002) states that “The quest by some for a completely consistent and logical picture of permaculture may not be useful. Rather than seeking to define or control permaculture, I write about it as simply one more contribution to understanding, meaning and action in a world full of uncertainty.”
 New to the West, at least. Such production systems have been in use elsewhere for millennia [e.g. see Hemenway (2001) and Jacke & Toensmeier (2005)].
 For example, a form of food production utilizing fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and perennial ground cover crops. Fukuoka (1978: p.44) rightly sees such natural techniques as qualitatively distinct from agriculture: “The seeding and harvesting so closely follow the natural pattern that it could be considered a natural process rather than an agricultural technique.”
 A technique of food production which has been central to the permaculture movement, utilising perennial crops (such as trees and shrubs) in a design which mimics the structure of a forest.
 A text which contains explicit references to dao, and Lao Tzu in particular. Mollison has stated that their philosophies are so similar that “Fukuoka-san and I are basically the same person” (Mother Earth News, 1987)
 An ethic also termed as ‘Share the Surplus.’
 Fukuoka, however, contradicts this “maturity” in a remarkable conversation held at the second Permaculture conference, published in Mother Earth News in 1987 and now available online. He states: “Become a foolish man. Be like the baby who sees everything at once, holistically.”
 Not only this, but also humans and their domesticates now shockingly make up 90% of total vertebrate biomass on the planet, up from an estimated 0.1% 10,000 years ago.
 Or ‘post-rational’ as Yu (2008) puts it.
 A grouping of species where each provides a unique function, such as nitrogen fixation, tap roots or ground cover, forming a synergistic whole. The ‘Three Sisters’ of corn, beans and squash are a well-known (albeit not necessarily permacultural) example of this principle.
 “Those who discriminate fail to see,” says Chuang Tzu (as cited in Cooper, 2001). “Hence to know how to stay within the sphere of our ignorance is to attain the highest” ( Chuang-Tzu, 2001: p.57)
 And, indeed, often more nutritious than domesticated crops.
 Colin Tudge, for example, has stated that “to condemn all of humankind to a life of full-time farming, and in particular, arable farming, was a curse indeed” (as cited in Manning, 2004: p.32). Clive Ponting (1991: p.41) agrees: “Agriculture is most definitely not an easier option than gathering and hunting. It requires far more effort in clearing land, sowing, tending and harvesting crops and in looking after domesticated animals.” Also see Marshall Sahlins’ (1974) Stone Age Economics.
 But also Chapter 63:
Do the nondoing.
Fulfill the task of no task.
 Juxtaposed with his assertion on p.74 that “Nature is everywhere in perpetual motion; conditions are never exactly the same in any two years.”