Permaculture and Climate Change


By Chris Bisson

At the international climate negotiation level there seems to be a failure to address the gap between the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and the adaptation of vulnerable communities to the effects of climate change.  In this article I will show that permaculture – a design art aimed at fostering resilient and socially just human living spaces, may just be what is needed to do this.

There is a problem with separating adaptation and mitigation, and that is that is some ways they cancel each other out.  Adaptation strategies may involve highly emitting solutions, and mitigation programmes may render significant population vulnerable to environmental changes.  One example is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) programme devised and agreed to by parties of the UNFCCC.  REDD would set strictly managed forest conservation areas in financially poor states as an offset for industries emitting in industrialized ones.  Though questionable as to whether this is an effective mitigation strategy, the worst aspect of this programme is the significant barriers for certain populations to adapt to climate change.  Many of the World’s peoples most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are reliant on forests for safe and appropriate sources of food, water, materials and energy, to restrict access to these forests would force reliance on commercial supply chains for their basic needs.  It would also displace many people to urban areas or places prone to human-made or natural hazards.

Another problem might be the use of Adaptation Fund financing to protect and foster industrial agricultural production around the world.  As discovered through projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, such initiatives would only lock peasants worldwide into greater debt and dependancy on global supply chains for their food production – one that also happens to be highly emitting in its production and transportation.  The indenture caused by such a food system is precisely the hazard that has rendered many people in financially poor countries vulnerable to climate change.

There is conceptual problem at the heart of REDD and Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF), which is that it separates humans from forests. It assumes that once divided, deforestation will stop and its ability to sequester carbon will be preserved.  The first problem with this assumption is the Euocentric notion that there is such thing as a pristine forest, when in fact as most Indigenous Peoples around the world have been saying: humans have been part of forest ecosystems since time immemorial.  What modern science has only recently come to understand is that almost all forests (primary or secondary) exist as they do partially because of human interaction.  Humanity as a species has co-evolved with such so-called “natural” environments.  The problematic conclusion that results from failing to see this is that we start to assume that ecological destruction exists because we (collectively) do, when it is in fact it is because powerful people with only a partial understanding of the world continue to force the rest of humanity to behave and think the way they do.

One potential alternative to this division is permaculture.  Though what permaculture claims to be is precisely what certain peoples around the world have been doing for millennia, in Western society (originally Australia) it was established is an ethics-based ecological design practice that aims to work with and mimic existing energy patterns in order to establish and flourish resilient human living spaces.  One particular concept that would reconcile forest conservation and food justice is the practice of forest farming.  Permaculture – and forest farming to this extent, works with in existing succession of growth patterns in the production of food.  In Eastern Ontario where I live,  our soils are in a constant struggle to become forests, and through even the most ecologically-conscious farming practices that yield annual produce, we have engaged in a constant battle to bring soils back to its pioneer phase; the phase that is most emitting of greenhouse gasses and also most sinking of carbon.  Growing our own food, locally from perennial sources such as bushes, trees, perennial herbs, etc. as well as integrating honey production, small-scale livestock raising and water purification we can bring our entire food system to work in tandem with one another.  By considering the inputs and outputs of each element and pairing them all up to form systems we can build a food system similar to an ecosystem.  This system also happens to build a great deal of biomas, which is needed to sequester carbon.

This practice is incredibly promising since it has been found to productively revitalize salt damaged soil, desertified landscapes and erosion prone slopes.  It also incorporates renewable energy production and passive energy planning into its design.  Permaculture inspires the mantra that the root of most of our environmental problems is precisely one of one-dimensional and inadequate attention to planning.  From permaculture it seems that both mitigation and adaptation can be combined.  If the Adaptation Fund could support programming to encourage permaculture designed food forests based on community need and desire, it seems that not only could we prevent deforestation and foster food justice – we could rebuild wetlands and forests and create locally resilient and socially just food and energy systems.

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