Of Permaculture and the Second Renaissance

Through a tweet by my friend Mat Milan (@mmilan) I got to read Robert Paterson’s interesting post “Is this the time for a New Renaissance and Reformation“, in which he discusses Permaculture vs. industrial food production and extrapolates to other areas of human civilization.

While I agree with Paterson’s analysis on how we got ourselves into this mess and was thrilled to learn about Permaculture as an alternative, his post triggered a number of questions in my mind, mostly about why we developed industrial production methods and if the transition to a Permaculture society is reasonably possible.

Root Causes

Let’s consider the first question. Yes, human ego is still at the center of the universe and we still largely subscribe to the notion that we are masters of nature and we can form it to our will with our technology. But the continuous drive of labor division and specialization had started long before medieval times and is still going strong. One of it’s roots is the consumerist culture that has become the expression of this iteration of human civilization. Another is the unchecked growth of population, which demands ever higher productivity in goods and services, and particularly in food production. This in turn leads to industrial-type agricultural and animal production with high-yield single-crop/animal multiple harvests requiring high levels of energy input (fertilizers, machinery etc.). This need for continuous productivity improvements drives the necessity for specialization in knowledge and skills.

As the population and consumerism pressures continued unabated, further productivity gains could only be achieved by expanding the level of specialization from local to national, to regional, and ultimately to global scale; hence what we refer to as Globalization. The structures that developed for this labor division and specialization were mostly hierarchical in nature with the unavoidable centers of wealth and power that are integral to hierarchies. As Ronald Wright describes in his book “A short History of Progress” these civilization structures emerged in a particular location of Earth, grew rapidly until their natural resources were exhausted and then faltered or moved to a different location.

As long as these structures operated at the local level they had a possibility to move to a different location. As the structures became global in scope they had less and less options to relocate. hence the current global crisis. The central hierarchical system is reaching its limits because it cannot consolidate to less than one center!

The Emerging New Structures

As the old system reaches it limits a new system with a fundamentally different structure must emerge, which most probably will not be hierarchical. Recent events seem to confirm this trend: traditional global systems are failing while decentralized, peer-to-peer, and local systems seem to succeed overnight: Skype, Twitter, Craig’s List, micro financing, eat local, open source concepts, creative commons, community initiatives etc.

The catalyst in this transformation seems to be the Internet. At the recent Toronto Planners Unite 2009 event Mark Earls author of “Herd” spoke about the crucial role of copying in human behavior. Copying requires seeing what’s to be copied; and if nothing else, the Internet is making all sorts of new ideas and initiatives visible to a global audience. The flock behavior can only accelerate and the importance of communities will explode.

Values Convergence

Interestingly, the values embodied in these emerging new structures seem to be converging. In a recent Twitter conversation with Alexander Osterwalder, Peter Jones and others about how a sustainable business model can be defined, we converged that it is the sustainable value that an organization provides to its “stakeholders, the community at large, and the environment”. I was pleasantly surprised while reading about Permaculture to find out that its core values are “Earthcare, Peoplecare, and Fairshare”. Do you recognize a pattern?

We could be at the cusp of a major transformational step in our evolution, which we usually call a revolution. The changes coming are going to be radical and difficult, possibly violent. I hope they will lead to a New Renaissance and Reformation!

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