attack is the best form of defense

January 24, 2006

I see that there is a bit of a debate starting to develop between Ran Prieur and Jason Godesky over the permaculture v foraging issue. I worry that this is getting personal because the argument is really about which basket we put our post-crash eggs into and both of them have not only declared their position but started acting on it too – I think it’s important to note that there’s a lot riding on the outcome.

The debate has also generated a lot of email traffic at both ends as well and maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, we’re talking about a matter of life and death here. It’s probably the most important issue facing anyone who can acknowledge the coming crash.
From has comments I gather than Jason is a bit suspicious about permaculture and has taken Ran to task for coming over all utopian. In doing so though he has uncharacteristically made a few errors and is being a bit black and white about things. I also notice that in attacking the idea that we will need to actively grow our own food he has forgotten to defend his position from the criticism that we need healthy ecosystems if we’re to rely on foraging. I hope he does this because if there is a good rebuttal I want to know about it. Like I said, lives are at stake.

I’m going to address some of his incorrect comments (although I note that some of his readers have already done so):

He seems to be implying that permaculturists want to use permaculture to prop up civilisation. Well, who cares if some are (and it should be blazingly obvious that Ran is not one of them, by the way), it’s too late. – all I’m interested in is spreading the word far and wide because most people where I am only know how to grow food using chemicals and they’re all going to starve if they don’t learn some new tricks.

Jason said: “Permaculture can not be used everywhere” and “But, what is good for me and mine may not translate well as a society-wide strategy”

Permaculture is a system of design so it most certainly can be used anywhere but also permaculturists emphasise spending as much time as possible observing the site and local ecology before making any decisions – what is good for me will depend on where I am and what is good for the rest of society will depend on where they are – it is not a one size fits all solution like we are used to in civilisation.

From a response in the comments section “…can permaculture heal the land, and feed humans, at the same time?”

Yes absolutely, for the ultimate example I again recommend this animated item (1.5MB)– which one of Jason’s reader’s did. Jason’s return comment was that some parts of the world are meant to be deserts. To be clear this was not one of them, this was a salt encrusted wasteland at the start.

One other thing, as can be seen from the above link, permaculture mimics the system of a forest by having multiple layers – tree canopy, smaller trees and shrubs.  I attempted to ask Geoff Lawton in an interview if this would be enough to repair the ecosystem but was immediately sidetracked when he said that with permaculture only 2% of the current arable land would be required to feed the world’s population and the rest could go back to being wild. He said they had the stats to back it up but maddeningly we were out of time to discuss this. I think I will chase him up to see if he can provide them because frankly it just sounds unbelievable. One other thing, If permaculture is that good then clearly the world’s population would likely just keep on growing until it reached the limits of this new threshold – but again that’s not going to happen – it’s too late.

Jason does end by saying that foraging and permaculture can work in companion and this will undoubtedly be the case. Regardless like everyone else reading these exchanges it’s got me thinking about my crash escape plan and now I have a few vague ideas:

+Attempt to get my small town to adopt permaculture principals and generally prepare for the crash so that I have total security in my district. Where I live this will probably work believe it or not.

+Start an Ecovillage. If civilisation wasn’t crashing I’d would want to do this anyway. We’d have to be aware that we might have to leave it all behind one day but while we are there we will have the space to learn foraging techniques and, just as importantly, we will learn how to live together as a tribe and how to resolve internal conflict –  something civilised people are very good at. After a few years of this I hope we will be a tight-knit community. If Ecovillage history is anything to go by becoming a successful functioning tribe is unlikely to happen if we leave it to chance.

+Ideally we would position the village backing onto a large area of native bush which we could even pre-plant with food crops although doing this in a National Park might be a tad risky. Either way it’s a place to go foraging in the event that we are overrun with hungry citizens or the government sends men with guns and big dogs or who knows what else. It would also give us a chance of coming back as well.

Anyway I’m giving William Koetke the last say. here’s something from chapter 16 of ‘The Final Empire’ that might be worth taking note of:
 As the planetary ecological crisis has deepened, anthropologist have focused their attention more clearly on the ecology of natural culture and are beginning to suggest that some “wild” rainforest environments are looking more like managed environments”

“Catherine Caufield, in her work, In The Rainforest, tells of the Lawa living in the rainforest of northern Thailand bordering Burma. As Caufield describes them, the Lawa are shifting cultivators who live in settled villages and have been in the same place for many centuries. She states,
“They grow more than eighty food crops, plus another fifty for medicine and ceremonial and household uses. In addition, they collect and use more than two hundred wild plants that grow in their fallow fields. Their system supports about 80 people per square mile, taking fallow land into account. One square mile of cultivated land supports 625 people, a ratio that compares well with, for example, Britain, which has one square mile of agricultural land in use for every 750 people. Britain, of course imports 60 percent of the fresh fruit, 20 percent of the grain, and 23 percent of the meat its people consume, whereas the Lawa are self-sufficient in food.”4
Caufield goes on to explain that they take great care of their land in terms of fire, soil erosion and soil disturbance.
The Cultural Survival volume, Indigenous Peoples And Tropical Forests, summarizes the, so far, limited observations that have been made of true rainforest food growing, called swidden. (This is distinguished from the destructive and ignorant temporary agriculture practiced by “frontier” settlers at the edge of rainforests…) First, the matter of soils is known precisely by most indigenous people. Soil quality is judged by the type of vegetation growing on it. It is judged by its color, taste, smell and by examining its subsoil moisture during various seasons. This means not that any one spot will be chosen for a plot but that each area is appropriate for plots according to the plants that will subsist best in that environment.
The food growing regime will not necessarily involve one or several plots, but may encompass many smaller ones according to the needs. During clearing of the plots, some of the plant species may be saved. Some of the tree species may be saved also for shade, wind breaks, to attract wild animals or for later use. In the planting one does not simply sow seeds but may use seeds, seedlings, cuttings, tubers and roots. In arranging the plantings, shade, light, soil, soil moisture, companion plants, nearby trees and other considerations will indicate the creation of micro-climates within the plot. All of these combinations will be transformed according to the different ecological zones that each plot has been located in. As the plot is “feathered” into the mature forest the matter of local animals is keenly considered in terms of attracting them to the area by having plants in the locale that the animals like and utilize.
The anthropologists have discovered that many plots remain in some kind of use for many years. With use, the soil and the growth of different plants in the plot changes. As the years go on, different plants are emphasized, often tending more and more toward bush and tree crops. There is mention in the literature of use of plots for 20, 30 and more years. One very important observation made by a few of the anthropologists is that this transformation from cleared plot to mature forest follows to a great extent the phases of ecological succession of the natural forest- except the tribespeople substitute useful relatives or plants of similar life habits for the plant that would ordinarily be in place during ecological succession.”



  1. I think you might be sensationalizing all this just a tad. As far as I know, I’m not involved in any kind of feud with Ran. I appreciate what he’s doing, I’m a fan of his, and his blog is one of my daily reads. Of course, I don’t agree with everything he says, but there’s no one with whom I always agree. I don’t think I’ve gotten personal, though, and if Ran has gotten personal with me, then he hasn’t done so in any forum I’m privy to. I’m approaching this as a disagreement that we can discuss civilly, not as a personal feud. I also don’t see our sides as irreconcilable. We both hope for a diverse future, and that means there should be room for both of us. In fact, I don’t think permaculture will be totally absent from my plans, and from what I’ve read, I don’t think foraging is totally absent from Ran’s.

    I don’t agree with Ran’s assertion that permaculture could feed the world’s current population. It’s a common assertion, and one that Holmgren himself has made. I disagree. While permaculture may be possible in any given bioregion, it’s not possible in every location in that region. For instance, I’ve heard you can get some really great yields from terracing. Try terracing a prairie, though. It seems to me, from my reading, that permaculture’s biggest yields are precisely in those areas that are most geographically specific. You can’t just multiply the yield-per-ace of your most high-yield acre and multiply it times the earth’s land surface, because that surface isn’t uniform. There are different kinds of climate, day length and geography.

    I asked, “can permaculture heal the land, and feed humans, at the same time?” That wasn’t a point, but a question. If you say yes, I’ll believe you, and we’ll take it from there.

    I certainly have no intention of implying that permaculture is meant to prop up civilization, though. I was referring to Ran’s claim that it could feed the current population, which does not jive very well with the Law of Conservation of Energy. We get a certain amount of energy from the sun each year, that is relatively fixed. It takes 40% of that energy to support the current population–that is the root of most of our current problems. Even a tribal, permacultural future can’t make more sunlight come out of the sky.

    I don’t think I need to do much more to defend my position about foraging and healthy ecosystems than I’ve already done, though. In your previous post, you quoted an email from Ran, which he apparently repeated on his blog, that permaculture is more sensible since growing your own food is more secure. The Inuit survive in the Arctic; the !Kung flourish in the Kalahari. All the foragers who still survive do so because they prosper in lands so marginal, so “dead” by any cultivator’s standards that they are of no use to us. Is there any permaculture being done on the shore of the Arctic Ocean? Because there’s foraging going on there, and has been for quite some time.

    Growing your own food has always been a risky endeavor; foraging is plentiful even in the most blasted wasteland. If we’re talking about how to get a reliable source of food out of land that’s been all but killed off by civilization, then Ran’s assessment really needs to be stood on its head–it’s foraging that’s secure, and permaculture that’s risky. Growing your own food only works in areas with a healthy ecosystem. Foraging prospers everywhere on the planet. If horticulture (and by extension, permaculture) really is sustainable (and I suspect that it is, but we have yet to see), it is certainly precisely because it is not sufficient to feed a population all on its own. Foraging is a necessary supplement, if only for meat. That makes the maintenance of wilderness necessary, rather than simply charity.

    You criticized my statement, “But, what is good for me and mine may not translate well as a society-wide strategy,” by saying, “it is not a one size fits all solution like we are used to in civilisation.” You’re rather repeating me there, though. That is what I meant by the statement you labelled as “incorrect”!

    I can certainly appreciate the good intentions of permaculture to “heal the land,” but, as was the intent of my original article, environmentalism is the story of good intention after good intention, whole roads paved with them, and where those roads so often lead.

    Posted by: Jason Godesky | 01/24/2006


    I knew it was going to be hard not to step on people’s toes when I did this but I have made it a bit worse by not be clear in some cases. I’m a fan of both your’s and Ran’s blogs and I’m as interested as anyone in exploring the issue.

    What I meant by things getting personal was that I’m expecting both of you to be very attached to your arguements because they have determined how you are approaching the coming crash. This is not an idle discussion for either of you. I did not mean to imply that there was a fued, although I can see how that could be read into what I wrote.

    It was Geoff Lawton that made bold claims to me about how many people permaculture could feed and I am attempting to contact him to find out exactly how he calculated this. It’s a 50-50 chance that he’ll be in some obscure part of the world where there is no email though. I would note that he made it clear that his calculations only involved the currently arable land not marginal forraging areas.

    I really reccomend that you go to http://www.permaculture.org.au/greening.htm to see a quite astounding project that Geoff Lawton has undertaken in the Jordan desert. It was done a piece of ground that had been damaged for a long time and was full of salt. It succeeded in repairing the ground and growing food in a matter of months and 3 years later they had turned the irrigation system off. What was grown also replicates a forest in that it has the normal succession of layers.

    What I’d like to see you defend is the idea that forraging might not be possible because of ecological damage – specifically why you think the ecosystem will be operating well enough for forraging to work. I suspect that you will need to be repairing the aera you live in which is why I added the extract from the Final Empire.

    You have reiterated your position that permaculture requires a healthy ecosystem but I believe that the permaculturists have shown that they can make the ecosystem healthy and I want to know if you accept this and if that makes any difference to your views.

    I don’t understand your second to last paragraph. I was making the point that permaculture is primarily a design system. It is not a prescriptive solution. It is by definition transferable to (almost) anywhere. Whether you would actually want to try it in the Kalahari is another issue. I’m only interested in trying it where the masses of starving people are going to be and I’m principally interested in it as a means of saving lives at the start of the crash. I tajke for granted that we want to save the planet too.

    Posted by: Aaron | 01/24/2006

    There’s nothing in permaculture design that excludes foraging; in fact, it specifically embraces foraging. In what we would call Zones One and Two (close to the house or village center), a permaculturist (and any sane person) keeps intensively managed systems such as wastewater conversion, water storage, social space, small livestock, and kitchen food gardens. Further away, in Zones 3-4 go larger water storages, large livestock,grain crops, timber and firewood species. Zone 5 is wilderness. Foraging and wildcrafting are done mainly in Zones 4-5. Mollison was much more of a hunter-gatherer than a farmer. I also find that in a permaculture-designed landscape, I feel more like a hunter-gatherer than a farmer too. I set up the systems, spend 3-5 years to get them running smoothly, and then wander around grazing or grabbing some mulch plants or bamboo when I feel like it. That’s been my experience in most mature permaculture designs that involve food production (as opposed to those primarily for organizations and businesses). As with most of the rest of life, it’s not an either/or issue. It’s both.

    Posted by: Toby Hemenway | 01/25/2006

    First, let me say that I agree with Toby on this point, that it is not at all an either/or issue. But, you asked:

    “What I’d like to see you defend is the idea that forraging might not be possible because of ecological damage – specifically why you think the ecosystem will be operating well enough for forraging to work. I suspect that you will need to be repairing the aera you live in which is why I added the extract from the Final Empire.”

    First, we need to clarify what we mean by ecological damage. Are we talking about the end of all life on earth? If that is the extent of the damage, then humans–as life one earth–would be dead, too, and the point would be moot. So, we’re talkng about something less extreme.

    The Fertile Crescent was turned into a desert by agriculture. The !Kung and the Hadza live in similar environments, so obviously foraging can work there. And, as we’ve all seen, permaculture works there, too. The permaculture took a few months to start producing food, though–foragers can start living off that land on day 1.

    But what about other marginal environments? The Arctic, for example? Almost nothing grows there. Can that be cultivated with permaculture? I don’t know–but I know that foragers have lived quite well there for thousands of years.

    The only environment that is so broken that a forager cannot make a living off of it is one that is completely and utterly dead–not desert, not blasted arctic waste, foragers do fine in those–but completely dead. And if it’s that dead, then I doubt that permaculture could do any better. In fact, the threshold of how much of a functioning ecosystem is required is apparently much higher for permaculture than foraging.

    The desert, after all, is still a functioning ecosystem.

    Posted by: Jason Godesky | 01/25/2006

    For those whose interest was piqued by the quote from “The Final Empire” that “some “wild” rainforest environments are looking more like managed environments” and the story of the Lawa, you might want to take a look at the article “1491” by Charles Mann, published in Atlantic magazine and at
    and, in all lack of modesty, my own article “Seeing the Garden in the Jungle” pubished in Permaculture Activist and at

    These both discuss the increasing understanding that what we once thought of as wilderness is often found to be highly managed by humans.

    Posted by: Toby Hemenway | 01/25/2006

  2. […] we would only need 2% of the current arable land to feed the world. I have written this here and here. Most people tend to conclude from that statement that we only need 2% of the land to […]

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