Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Green City Diaries: Fab Lab and the language of nature

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 11/12/13 in Model D)

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."