What can we learn from observing the self-sustaining ecosystems of the natural world? And with that knowledge, how can we design systems of our own, systems of all kinds, that mimic the intrinsic balance of ecosystems, with their capacity for diversity, renewal, and the transformation of waste into energy?
These are the kinds of big questions posed by practitioners of permaculture
, an approach to systems design with deep roots in agriculture but implications for, well, just about everything.
Permaculture (the word is a portmanteau of "permanent" and "agriculture," as well as "permanent" and "culture") was developed in the 1970s by Tasmanians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Reacting against industrial agricultural practices they found both wasteful and harmful, Mollison and Holmgren articulated an agricultural philosophy and practice inspired by natural systems.
Based on three fundamental values -- care for the Earth, care for people, and return of surplus -- Mollison and Holmgren's ethic emphasizes mutually sustaining relationships between living things and the intentional design of agricultural space to encourage such relationships. In essence, it's farming that works with nature, rather than against it, seeking to eliminate both waste and external "inputs" like pesticides, herbicides, water, and fertilizers. (Similar agricultural systems, called by different names, were developed around the same time by Sepp Holzer in Austria and Masanobu Fukuoka in Japan.)
As its adherents have grown in number and diversity over the decades, permaculture has been applied to systems outside agriculture, as well, including landscape design, planning, and architecture. But as a way of understanding and living in the world, its potential applications are even broader. "Everyone," as Detroit permaculturalist Kate Devlin puts it, "can incorporate some permaculture into their lives."
Kate, who's managed the Spirit of Hope church's permaculture farm
since 2007, believes that Detroit is in the midst of a permaculture "awakening."
"Urban permaculture hasn't been around that long, so we're still in the trial and error phase," she says. "Detroit's kind a of test spot for how it could work."
Permaculture initiatives are indeed popping up throughout the city -- including the Chiwara development in Highland Park that Dennis Archambault covered in Model D
a few weeks ago. My search for other noteworthy projects led me to Blair Evans, whose organization Incite Focus
, a "platform for community production," demonstrates the revolutionary potential of applying permaculture principles in the context of Detroit's DIY maker
I meet Blair at Incite Focus's east side fab lab
, a fabrication studio located inside the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy charter school. There's a garden outside, but inside, it's decidedly high-tech, complete with laser cutters, large CNC milling machines, a water jet cutter capable of cutting titanium and steel, and 3D printers that can print fully articulated mechanisms made of multiple materials. How, I wonder, does all this work together, and what in the world does it have to do with natural farming?
"Permaculture," Blair says, "is based in systems thinking. But it's hard to understand systems in general unless you understand one system well that you can abstract from. Unfortunately, in communities that are disenfranchised or under-resourced, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to get experience with well-functioning systems. Everybody can get some tomato plants and some worms and some soil, though, and have an extraordinarily complex system to work with and then scale up from."
Students at Kelso, as well as members of the surrounding community who learn, design, and build at Incite Focus, often begin their permaculture education, then, in the garden, where they first learn how to operate effectively within the natural environment.
"On the one hand, the gardening projects our students work on are deep and rich enough to allow them to really understand what permaculture means and why it's useful," Blair says. "On the other hand, we're in an environment in Detroit where people in very large numbers have been displaced from the position in the economy they had previously occupied and planned on continuing to occupy, and that's because of a structural shift, not a temporary change. So how can we use permaculture to imagine what the future of Detroit for Detroiters could look like?"
That's where the fab lab comes in. Blair believes that advances in digital production technology have reached the point at which, with an ecological approach to design and building in mind, people are now truly capable of producing most of the things they need. "Shelter, water, food, energy -- these are all things that we can actually harvest and produce. They're all around us; we're just not properly utilizing them."
Economically displaced Detroiters, Blair believes, should not wait for new industries to come along and absorb them into the workforce. Even if that were to happen, which he thinks unlikely, it would only return them to the fundamentally unhealthy, imbalanced system from which they were ejected in the first place.
"In permaculture," he says, "you're not a slave to the process. You're a participant in the process. Behind a lot of this work is the idea of allowing people to have the opportunity to actually spend a reasonable portion of their time, a third of it, producing the things they need to live (furniture, for example, tools, even houses) themselves. Then you can spend a third of your time using the same tools to produce things that are useful for other people: community-based enterprises. Then you have another third left to to do the things that make you want to get up in the morning, usually the things your high school guidance counselor talked you out of."
"If you're not engaged in the rituals that touch your passions," he says, "you're not in a position to bring the best of yourself to anything that you do. In a large sense, then, this all comes down to creating an environment and cultural context in which people in Detroit are able to truly maximize our capacity as people."
An ambitious and revolutionary goal, to be sure, but one rooted in a principle of the utmost simplicity: balance. Balance between consumption and production, between needs and wants, between individual and community.
Blair's work exists at a crossroads that's distinctly Detroit: it's where the pursuits of designing, making, growing, community building, and imagining new and better futures all come together. Inspired by the close study of natural systems, it's something else, too: a glimpse of what's possible when we learn to understand and speak the language of nature.
Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library.