Toby Hemenway: ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Planet – But Not Civilization’

A good piece of counterrevolutionary propaganda to watch while shelling your acorns:

I can’t believe it took me so long to sit down and watch this talk. It encapsulates so many of my reasons for doing what I do in such a remarkably concise and easily-digestible form. It seems a lot of the ideas presented have been recycled from the writings of Jason Godesky on the old Anthropik site (which influenced me greatly at the time as well) – for example, ‘Agriculture or Permaculture: Why Words Matter‘. That doesn’t take away from Hemenway’s original style and many pertinent observations, though.

See also his classic 2006 essay, ‘Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

For (the beginnings of) an interesting discussion on the differences between agricultural and horticultural subsistence strategies and their various merits and drawbacks, see this thread on the rejuvenated rewild forums and this Leaving Babylon post which spurred it.

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8 Responses to “Toby Hemenway: ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Planet – But Not Civilization’”

  1. Ian S Says:

    Thank you, Ian, for the links to this Interesting polemic. I’d be interested to read a critique — d’you know of one?

  2. Ian M Says:

    Ah, so you know you disagree – you’re just not sure how yet? :P

    The Leaving Babylon link expresses some dissent about the ‘tarring and feathering of agriculture’ and tries to go beyond the simple formulation of ‘horticulture=good, agriculture=bad’ and the rewild discussion gets into a more ‘nuanced’ evaluation of the different subsistence strategies, but I think all involved would broadly agree with Hemenway’s analysis (as do I). I think the core ideas are all fairly well accepted in their various scientific fields, but of course that doesn’t necessarily ‘prove’ the ideology that grows out of selective attention to this factual base. You might like to read Ran Prieur’s essay, ‘Beyond Civilized and Primitive‘ which expresses some dissatisfaction with primitivism-the-ideology. If you’re looking for an easy or ‘devastating’ dismissal, I wish you the best of luck, but finding a good one may take you quite a while!


  3. leavergirl Says:

    I have not had a chance to watch the video yet. But to clarify. I am arguing against the simplistic and dogmatic elevation of horticulture over other ways of getting food, creating the impression that switching to horticulture is a solution for our problems. Toby Hemenway says: “Horticulture has structural constraints against large population, hoarding of surplus, and centralized command and control structures.” Well, no, it does not. Some horticultural societies, like Easter Island or Tikopia (in its early days) overpopulated and badly damaged their environments. Certain tubers and dry fish can be hoarded and were. And even foraging societies can begin hoarding, overpopulating, and verge off into control.

    Toby says: “The horticultural way of life that it embraces may offer the road to human freedom, health, and a just society.” Well, that depends how it is defined, eh? There is no agreement among anthropologists on the definition. Toby is a propagandist (and I mean it mostly in the good sense) for permaculture, and so he overstates the argument in places.

    But he also says: “Agriculture can be thought of as an intensification of horticulture, using more labor, land, capital, and technology. This means that agriculture, as noted, usually consumes more calories of work and resources than can be produced in food, and so is on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns.”

    If agriculture is thought of as intensification, period, then, of course, I completely agree. That is my overall point, that it is *intensification* that does the damage. In rich ecosystems, the intensification can happen in a foraging economy as well, and then will lead into overpopulation, control structures, and other social evils. If the pattern is allowed to continue, environmental damage will follow as well.

    The problem with arguing against agriculture is that it leaves us with a confusion. What needs to be done? Giving up grains? Actually, people can ruin land with other crops too. Give up plow? Some plowing is useful and land-healing. I think the focus on intensification gives a better sense of what the culprit is… and Toby suggests that looking at surplus and what is done with it is something permaculturists have not sufficiently faced.

    Thank you, Ian, and others, for continuing the conversation.

  4. leavergirl Says:

    Clarification: certain types of plowing can be helpful, depending on soil and climate and other factors (preventing run-off, for example), and it can even be used to heal compacted, badly damaged land.

  5. Ian M Says:

    Hey leavergirl – thanks for that, and sorry if I misrepresented you with my ‘all involved would broadly agree with Hemenway’s analysis’.

    I don’t think I’m well-equipped enough to argue the horticulture case in Easter Island & Tikopia with you. At first I was happy to call them farmers and leave it at that (“Of course they destroyed the island’s ecosystem – that’s what farming does“), but as you point out things aren’t quite that simple. This discussion has further disenchanted me with the whole practice of definition. As I think I said before: I don’t care what you call it – if your subsistence strategy supports and enriches a diverse living community then I approve; if your strategy decimates and impoverishes those same communities then you can (and probably will) go to hell.

    And I’m still not sure exactly where I stand when it comes to intensification and the other social problems related to storage, surplus and overpopulation. I take Peter’s points in the rewild thread about intensification of horticultural techniques leading to old-growth forests when allied to spontaneous ecological succession, but this seems fragile and vulnerable to overexploitation. I know that coppicing was practiced over centuries, if not millennia, in the UK to provide wood for fuel, housing, toolmaking etc. while simultaneously improving conditions for woodland wildlife by diversifying the available habitats. This also prolonged the lifespan of the trees in question – ie: they tolerated, even thrived on a certain amount of intensification of their ‘natural’ growth patterns. But I’m sure there’s an upper limit on how much you can ramp up this productivity on a sustainable basis – if not reached during the iron age, then certainly by the industrial revolution.

    On storability I’ve said that grains have a ‘competitive edge’ over acorns, but the latter will still keep for several years in caches or buried underground. Kat Anderson says that California Indians did keep acorns and other wild seeds in longterm storage in case of trouble, but that nobody ‘owned’ these and anyone was free to take from them if they needed. Why they didn’t develop a hierarchy based on this storage according to the usual assumption is an interesting question!

    I’ve been wrestling with the topic of population growth lately too and wondering whether there would be any ‘structural constraints’ (as Hemenway puts it) on runaway population growth in an acorn-based culture. If population increases in line with intensification of food production as DQ argues, what’s to stop people doing that with trees instead of annual grains, eventually exhausting them through the ever-increasing demands on productivity? At least the trees support more wildlife in the meantime, I suppose…

    Sorry it took a while to respond – stuff happening in meatspace at the moment… More later.

  6. leavergirl Says:

    Delighted that you made this space for thinking this stuff through more. I think giving definitions too much play in any endeavor is not a particularly fruitful path to take…

    “I don’t care what you call it – if your subsistence strategy supports and enriches a diverse living community then I approve; if your strategy decimates and impoverishes those same communities then you can (and probably will) go to hell.”

    That’s it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating… :-) And I would add, “if your subsistence strategy supports sane social arrangements.”

    Peter’s argument rests on defining intensification differently from what I was talking about… something I had not realized when writing the essay. My definition is extracting more and more food from a given environment, his definition was doing more and more of the specific techniques. Not at all the same. One could argue that intensifying beneficial agricultural practices (like careful irrigation in land that is not prone to salinization, or by doing intensive rotational grazing ala Joel Salatin) also does good things for the land. When you intensify *food extraction* from any given environment, that is where the danger lurks.

    I agree with your source that some storage is not a deleterious practice per se. A society that turns its acorn caches into an “open source” resource will not likely go astray!

    As you say, intensification can happen via trees. It can happen via tubers and dry meat. The only structural constrains exist in mostly immediate-return, semi-nomadic societies, as far as I can tell. And I would really like to see Hemenway to tell us what he thinks these constraints are in horti societies; I looked and was not able to find them.

  7. leavergirl Says:

    And the conversation continues…

  8. leavergirl Says:

    Ian, I finally watched the video. I don’t agree with all the details, but overall, I think it’s a very good intro to permaculture… kinda easing people into the thinking required. Nice job, Toby!

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