First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"The Permaculture Solution"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore April 21, 2002


The Earth needs us to celebrate Earth Day even more than it did last year. Forests declining in size and diversity, oceans declining in populations of fish and threatened by pollution, atmosphere thinning of ozone and thickening with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, plead for our attention. Land, sea and air increasingly feel the effects of our self-centered obsession with human wealth created through plundering the stored biological wealth of this planet.

Earth Day is, and should be, a quintessentially Unitarian Universalist Holiday. Being a "this worldly" religion, the Earth is not our means to heaven but rather an end in itself. Earth Day is a day of recognition of the need to change course from a path of biospherical destruction to one of sustainable interdependence.

To celebrate Earth Day, I encourage you to take public transit to work Monday. Examine your consumption behaviors tomorrow and ask yourself if they are sustainable. Eat foods that are minimally packaged. Try not to use anything that isn't biodegradable or generates waste that will end up in a landfill. Earth Day is a time for us to stop for a moment and reflect on how the decisions we make affect our beloved planet.

Watching what goes in the mouth and into the toilet and wastebasket for a day can be enlightening and disturbing. I've often spoken about the imperative to move to a more sustainable culture. I haven't offered you many answers about how to get there. Today, it is my great delight to be able to pass on to you some revolutionary thinking that comes from an Australian named Bill Mollison.

I first heard Mollison interviewed on WMNF, my old favorite public radio station in Tampa, Florida. I remember being entranced by him and his deep insights into and observations of the native intelligence and potential for cooperation in natural systems. I deeply regret it has taken me this long to begin reading his enlightening writings and disseminating them. He offers the world a transforming vision that can save the human species and our planet.

Mollison was not born a zealous world savior. Like his ideas, they gradually evolved out of his life's work. Born in 1928 in the small fishing village of Stanley, Tasmania, he spent much of his youth on the ocean, first as a shark fisherman then as a seaman. After the war he drifted through employment as a forester, mill-worker, trapper, snarer, tractor-driver and naturalist. During the fifties and early sixties he worked as a biologist doing field work on rabbits, locusts, muttonbirds, and forest regeneration problems with marsupials. While doing this fieldwork, he had what I will call an awakening experience. He was trying to figure out how to regenerate tropical forests faster than the browsing marsupials could eat them. He realized that it wasn't the choice of forest species that was critical, it was the combination of species, 23 in fact, that supported the regrowth of the forest as a whole.

He didn't fully recognize the meaning of his discovery until the early 70's. Listen to Mollison's description of his insight:

In the early 1970s, it dawned on me that no one had ever applied design to agriculture. When I realized it, the hairs went up on the back of my neck. It was so strange. We'd had agriculture for 7,000 years, and we'd been losing for 7,000 years -- everything was turning into desert. So I wondered, can we build systems that obey ecological principles? We know what they are, we just never apply them.

Applying intelligent design and ecological principles to agriculture was the beginning of permaculture. The word 'permaculture' is the fusion of the words, permanent and culture. Mollison helped create the word and defines permaculture as "the study of the design of those sustainable or enduring systems that support human society, both agricultural & intellectual, traditional & scientific, architectural, financial & legal. It is the study of integrated systems, for the purpose of better design & application of such systems." Permaculture is "the conscious design of 'cultivated' ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is a harmonious integration of people into the landscape in such a way that the land grows in richness, productivity and aesthetic beauty."

When discussing the use and management of the world's resources, we need an ethical framework to guide us. Mollison stresses the importance of ethical principles in this work. The Prime Directive of Permaculture is for each of us to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. We must begin today implementing that prime directive guided by three ethical principles. First we must care for the earth. We must make provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. The second imperative is to care for people. People must have access to those resources necessary to their existence. Lastly, we must set limits to population and consumption. We must govern our own needs so we can set resources aside to further the first two principles.

The means to implement this ethical framework in ecological design is the principle of cooperation. Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival.

Somewhere in human evolution, our species has gotten very confused about the cooperative nature of the universe. Yes, there is competition and survival of the fittest. And that competition happens within a larger system of homeostasis and mutual support. Plants and animal groupings, or guilds, form interactive systems that support the community even though some individuals in the community may not prosper.

The cooperation between species is hardly a revelation. One simple example is planting grapes and roses together. Why plant these two species together? A Greek peasant would say, "Because the rose is the doctor of the grape. If you don't plant roses, the grapes get ill." The scientist would tell you another reason. The rose exudes a certain root chemical that is taken up by the grape root which, in turn, repels the white fly. In the Philippines, a chili and four beans are planted in the same hole as the banana root. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil and the chili prevents beetles from attacking the banana root. This plant guild works very well to support the production of bananas. Native American's used similar principles when they planted squash, maize and beans together.

This kind of traditional knowledge accumulated over thousands of years of observation doesn't make sense to agribusiness that relies on technology. The technologist's solution to increase grape yield is to look for a way to extract the chemical from the rose root and spray it on the grape vines. This creates jobs and stimulates the economy. The simpler and more holistic solution is to just plant them together and enjoy their mutually reinforcing beauty.

Do we take advantage of plant, animal and insect cooperation in modern agriculture? NO! For seven thousand years, we've segregated plants and emphasized monocultures. Monocultures are a recipe for ecological disaster. Plowing the soil leads to erosion. Planting one variety or strain depletes the soil of precious nutrients. Controlling weeds means either more plowing (and thus more erosion) or introducing dangerous herbicides. Monocultures create insect community instabilities that require pesticides to control. After harvesting, the soil remains significantly exposed to erosion even with a cover crop. Modern farms are not designed to build topsoil. They are designed to mine it like one would mine oil and minerals. And when the soil cannot support life anymore, manufactured nutrients are reintroduced. The use of nitrogen based fertilizers didn't take off until munitions manufacturers after World War II were looking for a new place to sell their product.

Modern agricultural techniques are all built on cheap oil. Oil for the farm machinery. Oil to manufacture the soil amendments. Oil to kill bugs and weeds. Much of what we eat is oil and fossil water converted into food with a little sunlight.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Permaculture approach is examining the energy economy of the farm looking for energy sources to support the ecosystem. One of the more unpleasant realities of existence is the law of entropy. Energy naturally dissipates. Without adding new energy, everything would disintegrate into black death. In the farm ecosystem, that new energy comes from the sun. The sun generously showers us with a tremendous amount of energy. The trick of the farm economy is to catch as much of that energy as possible before it dissipates.

That extraction process happens through cyclical systems. Plants store energy through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis stores energy through the plant's growth, leaves, flowers, fruits, nuts, beans and seeds. Animals consume that stored energy and convert it again into their growth. But the process doesn't stop there. Their waste can also be harvested for methane and fertilizer. Harvested plant matter can be fermented extracting alcohol and carbon dioxide for other purposes. Earth worms, fungi and bacteria work on what's left further extracting energy.

Discarding anything along the way is a missed opportunity for energy recovery. The more cycling and recycling that happens, the more energy that can be extracted. Mollison forms this into a design principle: The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited. Every cyclic event increases the opportunity for yield. To take advantage of these cycles is to impose order and purpose to a system. Order and harmony produce energy for other uses. Disorder consumes energy to no useful end.

The energy of the sun is not the only resource available to the farmer looking for a way to extract more from the ecosystem while at the same time increasing it's health, harmony, diversity and productivity. Water is a precious resource for all farmers. Water falling from the sky also captures some of the sun's energy. If it falls on the top of a hill, it also stores potential energy that can be converted into work through a series of small ponds down the side of a hill. Again, water storage is another chance to introduce a new cycle of aquaculture growing fish for food.

Water doesn't enter an ecosystem only through rainfall. The leaves of trees also capture it. In foggy places like the Pacific Coast of the United States or the British Isles, a significant amount of the water for the ecosystem comes from the condensation of water on tree leaves that then drip to the ground. When it does rain, the root systems of the trees and the cover provided by the leaves help the soil hold the water and prevent runoff. For fruit and firewood, cover, soil retention, wind breaks, and creating warmer microclimates, trees are invaluable partners to the Permaculture designer.

The idea that all of our food and energy needs can come from a small patch of land might seem a little foreign to us here in Upstate New York. After all, we have a shorter growing season and not much solar heat in the winter. Mollison considers these limitations along with some of the advantages our climate might afford. The cold allows us to store food without refrigeration in the winter for example. Mollison travels the world to deserts, mountains, savannahs helping people look at their ecosystem and design ways to extract food and resources in a sustainable way. Rest assured, our climate is hardly the worst and has many advantages. It's all a matter of observation, experiment and innovation.

What about those of us who live in urban areas? Can we take advantage of Permaculture ideas? Mollison did just that in Brooklyn. Every city has abandoned lots that can be converted to cultivation. Greenhouses can be built on those lots to trap the sun and take advantage of the cities as heat islands to extend the growing season. Waste heat is cycled into plants! Today, something like 10% of the fresh herbs available in New York City are grown in over 1000 small urban greenhouses.

What about most of us who live in the suburbs? Well, many of us own land that surrounds our homes -- productive land that is being wasted cultivating lawns. Mollison has a special hatred for lawns that consume tremendous amounts of resources. Think of the chemicals used to kill insects and weeds. Think of the wasted gasoline burned cutting grass. Think of the valuable sheep forage just discarded! It doesn't have to be that way! How many of us use our property to grow food producing trees? Apples? Plums? Peaches? Cherries? We live in a valley that is perfect for these kinds of fruits. How many of us grow our own summer vegetables?

I know what you're thinking. I suspect there are many people like me here who don't want to work very hard making my own food. I'd rather just go to the store. This is the beauty of the design of Permaculture. The goal is to design a self-supporting, no-tilling system that requires little, if any, work. Once the plant guild is established, you just go out foraging and pick something to eat. The ecosystem is designed to be self-sustaining and regulating. A good Permaculture design means you have more time in your life rather than less! A good Permaculture design produces energy rather than consumes it.

This is the exciting, visionary point and why I bring it to you on this day celebrating our precious blue-green earth. We live today in an unsustainable world eating up the resources of this planet, consuming our stored reserves of energy, water and minerals. We cannot continue down this path. Oil based technology will not save us this time.

I've only given you the broadest outline of the concepts and principles of Permaculture. Mollison takes a scientific approach to organic systems looking for synergistic opportunities to increase the system's yield. That cooperation increases people's self-sufficiency and lowers the pressures to pillage the world extracting precious resources. Permaculture's creative use can support indigenous people and protect them from economic exploitation by multinational corporations.

This kind of intelligent cooperation with nature offers a vision for the new millennium that I find truly inspirational. By using our intellectual power to cooperate with nature rather than trying to subdue her, we can create the food, energy and quality of life that can be sustainable for many generations. Sustainable in ways that nourish our spirits as well as our stomachs!

The transforming vision of Permaculture can make a big, positive difference in human existence. May we have the collective will to make it so.


I'll close with Bill Mollison's words in response to the question, "What do you think you've started?"

Well, it's a revolution. But it's the sort of revolution that no one will notice. It might get a little shadier. Buildings might function better. You might have less money to earn because your food is all around you and you don't have any energy costs. Giant amounts of money might be freed up in society so that we can provide for ourselves better.

So it's a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.

May care for the earth and care for people be our ethical commitments as well.

Copyright © 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.


The Mollison quotes and some examples I cite come from a wonderful interview of Bill Mollison by Scott London found at:

A great textbook on Permaculture philosophy and design is: Permaculture: A Designer's Manual by Bill Mollison.