Permaculture and the Myth of Scarcity

This essay has been translated into Spanish.


At a conference a couple weeks ago an activist who does work in Africa recounted an encounter she had with the minister of agriculture of a certain African country. The minister spoke with excitement about the high-tech agricultural technologies he was bringing into the country in partnership with large agribusiness companies, so the activist brought up the topic of organic agriculture. The minister said, “Stop. You don't understand. We cannot afford such luxuries here. In my country, people are starving.”

This reflects a common conception about organic agriculture – that it sacrifices productivity in the interests of the environment and health. It stands to reason that if you forgo pesticides and chemical fertilizer, yields are going to suffer.

This, in fact, is a myth. In Sacred Economics I cite research showing that when it is done properly, organic growing methods can deliver two to three times the yield of conventional methods. (Studies showing the opposite are poorly constructed. Of course if you take two fields and plant each with a monocrop, then the one without pesticides will do worse than the one with, but that isn't really what organic farming is.) Conventional agriculture doesn't seek to maximize yield per acre; it seeks to maximize yield per unit of labor. If we had 10% of the population engaged in agriculture rather than the current 1%, we could easily feed the country without petrochemicals or pesticides.

It turns out, though, that my statistics are way too conservative. The latest permaculture methods can deliver much more than just double or triple the yield of conventional farming. I recently came across this article by David Blume chronicling his nine-year permaculture enterprise in California. Running a CSA for 300-450 people on two acres of land, he achieved yields eight times what the Department of Agriculture says is possible per square foot. He didn't do it by “mining the soil” either – soil fertility increased dramatically over his time there.

When people project an imminent food crisis based on population growth or Peak Oil, they take for granted the agricultural methods we practice today. Thus, while the transitional period may involve temporary food shortages and real hardship, permaculture methods can easily feed the peak world population of perhaps 10 or 11 billion we'll see by mid-century.

It is true that the old, control-based methods of agriculture are nearing the peak of their productive potential. Further investments in this kind of technology are bringing diminishing marginal returns – witness the proliferation of Roundup-resistant weeds and the “necessity” of new kinds of herbicides to deal with them. This parallels the situation with so many other kinds of control-based technology, whether in medicine, in education, politics.... we are indeed nearing the end of an era.

One sign that this is so is that the old models are not working financially anymore either. Once upon a time, monocropping may have been the most economically efficient way to farm, but today even farmers who play by the conventional rules can barely stay in business. Blume outperforms them not only ecologically and yield-wise, but also financially. Making the transition to permaculture is therefore a transition in our thinking, our habits, and our forms of economic organization. It springs naturally from ecological thinking, it embodies that habit of service to others, and it concords with the economic form of small, independent or cooperative producers. For this reason, it does not easily fit into the operations of large agribusiness corporations. (Let us note, though, that they too are becoming obsolete in their current hierarchical, centralized form.)

The defining image of 20th century agriculture was the huge combine harvesting endless fields of grain. I'd like to offer a very different vision for 21st century agriculture:

(1) High-intensity permaculture around major population centers that meet 80/% of their food needs. Blume points out that even without modern permaculture techniques, the city of New York, with over one million people, met all its food needs from within seven miles prior to 1850.

(2) Widespread gardens replacing a significant portion of America's current number one crop: lawn grass. Many suburbs could be nearly self-sufficient in food.

(3) A healing of the damaged lands of the farm belt and a restoration of the original forests and prairies of many of those areas. With high-intensity local production, many of the acres planted with corn, wheat, and soybeans in the Midwest will be unnecessary for food production. This is not to say that commodity crops for export to other regions will disappear, just that they will have a much diminished role.

(4) Increased biofuels production on decreased acreage. While most biofuel in the U.S. Is made from corn, Blume points out that other crops can deliver as much as ten times the fuel per acre – and that's not even counting cellulose conversion technologies.

(5) As presaged by the resurgence of interest in farming among young people, a far greater proportion of the population will be engaged in agriculture, and gardening will be nearly universal. Depopulated rural areas will be repopulated and small town economies will flourish based on local production and consumption.

In America, the transition to this vision will involve a severe disruption of our present way of life. In other countries where people still practice small-scale farming akin to modern permaculture, the transition might be much smoother. They can leapfrog the 20th century directly into the 21st, without repeating our ecologically and socially devastating mistakes. People in other lands can adapt the principles of permaculture to their own specific environmental and social circumstances. This is not about clever white people inventing a new model and imposing it on someone else. (Indeed, many permaculture techniques have been adopted from indigenous farmers around the world.) It is about everyone learning from everyone else, all guided by the ideal of wedding agronomy to ecology and fostering bioregional food self-sufficiency.


  1. Indeed, one of the big problems seems to be that what is now considered normal – in agriculture: conventional – with the story being that there is only either that (even if it ends in trouble), or trouble, overlooks all the third ways that work with and as ecology to create better conditions and better lives.

    A look at history is in order: that kind of “normal” is very recent.

    Quite a bit of writing on that also on my site, The Ecology of Happiness @

  2. This is a beautiful vision, however the agra/chem industrial complex will fight this to the bitter end. Is there a plan to phase this in? Is there any cooperation at the local level? What can we do in our own local area to help this along? Are there articles we can give our local newspapers to educate people in our specific areas?

    • It is very simple. You, and anyone reading this, needs to rip up their front and back yards, and/or use any other space available under their control (spare rooms, tressels, rooftops, attics, closets, sheds) and plant food. This can also be done on public land. The sooner people see other people doing these acts more and more, the awareness spreads. Promoting the principles of homesteading, agroforestry, food forests, agronomy, hydroponics, vertical farming, permaculture, sustainability, and veganism, we can effectively begin transitioning into a negative-growth economy. This is a good thing, as the insanity of infinite growth on a finite planet, as characterized by the central bank interest-bearing debt money we have today, will begin to unravel.

      • I agree with you on everything except veganism. Herbivores will be essential for restoration and disturbance and being responsible, non-wasting beings, we must use their products(meat, milk, fat, etc) for sustenance and energy. Restoration can take place without animals but it will take 10-fold longer in time!

        • So you are suggesting that existing live animals not be wasted, right? Because at some point, it would otherwise require intentional breeding which could no longer be considered “non-wasting.”

  3. Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the fledgling colonies of American: everyone would be farmers and help each other (Jefferson and Washington were plantation owners). However, life at the vagaries of Mother Nature soon led to tobacco’s rise as a popular cash crop; after all, nicotine is a drug. Just be aware of Jefferson’s vision and its detour.

  4. Thanks for emphasizing the labor and cost issue over acreage yield. I’m a (conventional) crop scientist and been coming to similar conclusions on many points you make. I certainly agree that the common “feeding the world” statement is weak – it’s more directly a “reducing the cost of food” issue. But that’s where we also see things in the completely opposite manner: the conventional (supply-side) economic argument, which I mostly agree with, is that we want to lower the costs of production as much as possible, taking into account environmental and social externalities, because it results in a bigger overall pie that can then be divided. How is it that you see the 10 times more ag labor (which sucks to do, by the way), and more importantly, the more expensive food that would result from that, as a good thing? Honest question, not trying to be argumentative. Maybe that’s where we just have completely different visions of ag and society. I completely agree with you that the difference between the organic crowd and the conventional crowd is one of vision and not science.

    • Up until six years ago I worked as a psychoanalyst in France, the European country now spending the most on pill popping.
      I also trained to become a clinical psychologist.
      If you take the time to open up Descartes’ “The Discourse on the Method”, written around 1560, and read it carefully, you will see the ideological model and framework for our modernity, which rests on a particular definition of science that can be discussed, in my opinion.
      It is a dualistic framework which ultimately divorces intellectual.. “labor” from physical labor.
      And for many years, France has been.. senselessly promoting an intellectual elite that does not get its hands dirty. (Telling word, that…)
      But, at this point in time, the shrink that I am tells me that this divorce between head and hands (and dirt…) has had damaging effects on our psyches (not just…).
      Spending your days typing on a (clean ?) computer, rather than rooting around, and getting tired and dirty is just not the paradise that we thought it would be.
      Many people here are out in orbit. They can theorize, jargon, whatever, but… they don’t know what their hands (or their bodies..) are for, except to get fixed in an industrialized hospital, on a specialized assembly line where they are treated as nuts and bolts.
      This… is not progress.
      Getting our hands dirty (in the earth…) would go far towards healing our unconnected minds, at this point.
      And… a little hard physical labor would remind us to that we are not just… homo SAPIENS, or at least that homo sapiens does not have to be… homo theoreticus.

      • My quick reply is I don’t do as much field work as some of my peers, but I do enough to know that it can suck, big time.

        Walking through 1000 plots taking field notes every three days gets tiresome, quickly. And the average person would agree with me. Still, I certainly have colleagues that love field work.

        All that said I know what you’re talking about in terms of specifics. I agree people need to get their hands dirty…at least from time to time. But I don’t agree with that in regard to the general population and society as a whole.

        You actually bring up a point that I’ve made for some time: the (stereo)typical pro-“organic” pro-“sustainble-ag” person is somebody who works at a desk and has absolutely no idea how much it sucks to do real farming (I’m not talking about gardening).

        • Having lived on an organic farm for a few years now, I have the chance to see new people coming in every year to farm. My experience is that most of them love it. However, not that many people continue doing it, because it is incredibly hard to support oneself by being an organic farmer. For me, cheap conventional food is a big part of the problem. This food is so cheap because of artificially low prices for non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, and because many of the costs are externalized.
          I truly believe that the very act of growing food in a wholesome and sustainable way can help heal humankind, that it can be one of the most satisfying occupations worth dedicating one’s life to. But to make a livelihood out of it however, much of this satisfaction disappears. This is not, in my opinion, because farming sucks, but because the economic infrastructure its embedded in does.

        • Permaculture = Permanent (Agri-) Culture. There is actually LESS work to do if it’s done right (no thinning, no weeding, no applying pesticides/herbicides/fungicides, less water usage… sheet mulching is our friend), but many more hands are needed when it comes time to harvest = more jobs. Why are more jobs a bad thing again?

          And another thing, because of the huge variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables produced there is very little danger that the entire farm will be wiped out by insects or disease. The same cannot be said for monoculture.

          • Agree with much of the above.
            I think that we really do not imagine… how many prejudices we have at this time about lots of things, including farming.
            Last year I let my cherry tomatoes run wild in their plot, and out of laziness.. did not weed out the constantly encroaching morning glory. The weeds kept the moisture in, and allowed me to not water as much. While my… industrious and disciplined neighbors (constanstly busy with pesticides) complained about their poor tomato crop, mine did just fine.
            We have intellectual blinders on…
            More hands means.. less backbreaking work for each individual.
            At this point in time, it seems to me that “progress” has brought us to the point where the salaried worker is now working in many of the same physical/material conditions as former… slave labor once worked, but without many of the advantages (being lodged and fed…).
            Logical. Whenever “paradise” points its head, “we” manage to sink our teeth into the apple once again…
            Think about it… when you have learned over 2000 years that paradise is just not for you here and now… you will unconsciously find ingenious ways of continuing to maintain.. “utopia”, and not… “eutopia”…
            And it is not the decline of the Jewish/Christian religions that will change this.. “we” have managed to secularize these religions in order to metamorphize the old gods into… new idea(l)s…

        • Of course that gets tiresome quickly! That’s some crazy, long, boring ass shit walking 1000 plots doing the same thing! The problem is the centralisation of food distribution. A few people doing all the work for heaps, dealing with one crop all the time. None of the intricacies of crop rotation, companion planting, any of the interesting stuff that goes into growing a whole bunch of different things on a small scale for a small community. Putting a part of the responsibility for food on to everybody.

    • > How is it that you see the 10 times more ag labor (which sucks to do,
      by the way), and more importantly, the more expensive food that would
      result from that, as a good thing?

      That is a good question. I believe it comes out of a misunderstanding of economics. Rather than debate theory, we look at reality. Anywhere in the world where a greater percentage of the population is engaged in agriculture to feed their own people, we don’t see people going hungry for lack of ability to buy food. We typically see people eating very healthfully and with greater variety than in the industrial system.

      The food we buy isn’t cheap. The costs we pay simply aren’t included on the price tags in the stores. We pay the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. We pay for the reduction in physical activity and increase in toxins by buying gym memberships, diet books and programs and medical care. We pay in welfare and other social programs because the reduction in labor numbers creates unemployment. We pay in the costs of public and private military control over lands in other countries where our corporations seize control of other people’s land to make up for the degradation of cropland here at home. We pay in many ways that have a calculable monetary cost for the industrial food we buy. The problem is that since those costs are spread out and unaccounted instead of concentrated on the price tag, we look at the price tag and call the food cheap. It’s a very narrow and short-sighted way of looking at the enormous cost of the system we have.

      “Cheap” food has not benefited the populace at large. It has benefited those who make money from the system.

      • thanks jo ann.yes, it is kind of a permission space execpienre of self within the hive-like confines of like six others vibrating at tonalities you can recognize as within you and your own, seeing difference as unrecognized sameness?i recently had different execpienres of people playing the voyBom guitar with me in a jamming space, rocking out and being brought into awareness of hearing the same-different polarity within the sounds of the strings and the limited but interesting harmonic choices, and the increasingly compelling rhythm. each was drawn directly in to the non-verbal communicative mode that one could say characterizes real music-making. but without the ten years of practice. (Knowing full well that with ten years of practice of the right kindvirtuosos can be trained, but to what end? only to confirm the algorythm? of success?but were this used by people as a sanctuary from media, alienation and selfishness. what if voyBom is this vibration? of complete new-found confidence for all humans. starting with toning and moving out from there?

    • Justin Ma – There are many (many) people in this world who love to farm, or garden – to grow things and immerse themselves in the world of earth, plants and nature. If you’re not one of them, then perhaps something else is for you – creating art works, alternative energy or building, making music, whatever. I don’t find agricultural work ‘sucks to do’ as you put it! I love it, and would (do) do it even if I didn’t get paid.
      The cost thing you mention – that organic/sustainably produced food costs more – is in fact a con: the fact is that big ag is massively subsidised, and externalises costs like pollution, waste disposal (in permaculture there is no waste or pollution), and the destruction of soil. If big ag were to work sustainably, and had to take these costs into account, that food would cost as much. Never before have humans spent such a tiny percentage of their income on food, as we do nowadays.

    • How is it that you see the 10 times more ag labor (which sucks to do, by the way), and more importantly, the more expensive food that would result from that, as a good thing?

      And also account for the resultant (local) lack of choice, variety, and quality that will ensue. AND… safety. How do we control for unsafe production (for any reason)? For me (a libertarian) I know that answer; you won’t be able to sell your excess production (locally) if you get a reputation for poor/unsafe products and sane individuals will not intentionally poison their own families; but poisoned they will be. Do you expect those numbers to be equal to, or less than, the current inefficient governmental regulation/inspection.

      And finally, most important… what are consumers willing to pay to avoid working their gardens?

  5. Found the post and the comments quite interesting. Having spent three decades at various levels, from full-time organic farming/ranching, to research scientist in lab, forest and field, academically and privately, we are at the cusp of significant change. Conventional and industrial food production has to change, and it will eventually, if not by choice, then by collapse of the modern system(s).

    Parallel with emerging distributed and point-of-use renewable energy production, food production will follow, albeit belatedly like an on old man on one crutch. Famine may precede this change given the unchecked growth of human population. This, in addition to drought, has been a check-and-balance in previous civilizations. Even with our supposedly superior technology and science, we are still vulnerable. However, considering the current global population and climate change, the mortality rate will be unheard of.

    We must be open to new ideas. As any good scientist knows, vision often drives science. Couple the two and we may have some solutions.

  6. when we work with nature and the soil food web things flourish, as in nature,It means being in tune with each particular plot, suiting plants to conditions, adding in plants for predators and beneficial wildlife. not forgetting the beneficial fungi under the soil that work in symbiosis with most plants When changing from conventional methods you may need to hold backfrom interfering and using chemical pesticides, but eventually nature strikes a balance, with predators controlling pests. You will love the natural diversity, within your plot when you let go, and let nature in. My own garden has frogs toads two species of newts, slow worms, various dragonflies, solitary and bumble bees, bee flies, ladybirds, spiders galore, we also see feild mice, moles, shrews little and tawny owls bats, larger visitors include badgers, foxes etc

  7. PS Food forests are less labour intensive, they can feed many generations and after careful planting, most of the work is harvesting, with some tweaking, pruning, adding. and cutting back.Monoculture is flat – food forests maximise use of space and all levels vertically starting below ground and up to the canopy. Debra is right, it should not hurt an intellectual to get their hands dirty – I do it most days and derive enormous pleasure spending time with nature, equally I love to stretch my mind.

  8. Decent article, on balance. This sentence in particular explains a lot:

    ‘Conventional agriculture doesn’t seek to maximize yield per acre; it seeks to maximize yield per unit of labor.’

    I’ve been struggling to understand this curious state of affairs where farmers are supposed to be under this tremendous pressure to increase productivity, and yet organic techniques, simple veg gardening and indigenous multi-storey forest garden traditions have been shown to compete with and sometimes outproduce monocropped grains for bulk caloric output acre-for-acre. For example David Bainbridge compared yields from corn to that from acorns, a staple food for many N American tribes:

    ‘Corn yields generally range from 2,500 to 10,000 pounds per acre. In comparison, acorn yields in natural forests have been recorded as high as 2,000 pounds per acre from the live oak (Q. virginiana), and—in a good year—I’ve recorded black oak (Q. velutina) yields per tree that would amount to more than 6,000 pounds per acre in a pure stand. And J. Russel Smith, in Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, cited an individual oak that produced a full ton of acorns annually. If a 100-foot spread is assumed for that tree, it seems possible that a yield of 10,000 pounds of acorns per acre could be achieved.’ (

    This doesn’t account for other uses such as fuel & building materials from the oak wood and secondary crops from annual seed-bearers and shrubs grown in the understory, nor does it take into account the many potential game animals that could thrive in a landscape managed that way (annual grain crops don’t provide the habitat and any nonhumans are more likely to directly affect the harvest and consequently be viewed as pests). Why don’t the business-minded, production oriented modern farmers emulate some of these methods? It only starts to make sense if you view the primary cultural consideration as being one of power, control and the centralisation of wealth. People can live self-sufficiently in forest gardens from small, local allotments. Big monocrop fields are designed to feed the cities, and the people who farm them have to buy most of their food just like everybody else.

    On this issue of production, though, I have to say that I’m getting sick of hearing statements like this from people who should know better:

    ‘permaculture methods can easily feed the peak world population of perhaps 10 or 11 billion we’ll see by mid-century.’

    This tells me that you don’t understand basic population dynamics whereby an increase in food availability leads to an increase in the feeder population. I’ll tell you what I told Oxfam in response to a recent campaign of theirs ( If you GROW enough food for 9 (10,12…) billion people soon there will BE 9 billion people. Inevitably this manifests as mass extinction and ecological collapse as biomass is sucked from the total living community to feed the growth of a single member species. The last I heard humanity used 40% of the planet’s total photosynthetic capacity – the amount of sunlight that hits the surface of the globe – with agriculture accounting for two thirds of this, even before factoring in the ‘fossilised sunlight’ that most crops depend upon in about equal measure (see ‘The Oil We Eat’: Do you think it’s a good idea to increase this share, basically stealing it from all the other lifeforms who depend on it? I don’t think I’m the first to say that the permaculture movement needs to figure out what to do with its ‘theoretically unlimited’ yields.

    I recommend the work of Daniel Quinn on this subject, in print:
    and in person:
    Or read the Hopfenberg/Pimental paper, ‘Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply’:


    • Ian, I can give you a perspective from growing up in a farm town. It’s because farmers often feel pressured by the amount of debt and equity they’ve developed in their land. They know they’re sinking in the margins between those figures but change is costly and the subsidies they depend on are big.
      So is the answer chopping all those subsidies and take away one of their reasons for holding on to old ways? No, I don’t think so. That will create a whole new crisis! For now, co-ops which sell a variety of fresh organic food directly to customers are increasing in number. So are both urban and rural farmer’s markets, including some which have permanent installations in order to sell even winter crops.
      The push to change our farming methods is growing and the nation’s big farmers will have to adapt. Some groups interested in environmental, food or economic justice like Occupy or Food Not Bombs have started programs to assist small farmers in switching to organic and sustainable methods either through volunteering or donations. This is what I consider the highest priority in regard to any kind of justice and a sustainable future. We need to help our small farmers put good methods into practice.

      • We’ve been working on what I call “affordable equity” farming. We formed a co-op and purchased land in its name. Since that time, we’ve been trying to attract member-funders, who could build a house and collaboratively farm for about 1/3rd the cost of owning their own titled property.

        But I’m not sure the world is ready for this. Those with enough zeal to embrace the paradigm don’t have a dime to put in, and those with money to put in are sitting scared, more willing to look at the potential down-side of something right in front of them than to face the certain down-side of something so vast that it boggles the imagination. The certain, long, slow train-wreck of a civilization built upon fossil sunlight is just too scary to contemplate, so it’s easier to to just say, “That won’t work” when any alternative is brought up.

        Want to do collaborative Permaculture? We could use some help!

    • Ian,

      A very apt teaching moment for you. Yeah, the human population question and it’s ramifications in terms of the human carrying capacity of our Eaarth home needs to be front and center in any moral/ethical discussion as you make perfectly clear. I’m trying to wrestle with this myself. I doubt if that carrying capacity is as low as the 1 or 2 billion I often read about, but I doubt that it is higher than the 3 or 4 billion that I suspect, and only then if nearly all of our energy comes in renewable forms, ultimately from sun energy and the winds that the sun creates.

    • Sorry, only just saw these comments.

      Isaac – Thanks for that. I figured debt and/or other forms of coercion had something to do with it. Subsidies are only made available in support of certain practices, right? It seems doubtful that any government would fund projects that undermined the dominant business interests. People who supply most of their own needs independently through a direct engagement with the land obviously threaten those interests because they have no requirement for a consumer-capitalist (or deeper, an agrarian-industrialist) system. As Oak enthusiast Christian Siems writes:

      I also believe that governments found that forcing people to rely on annual food crops kept them busy, exhausted and easier to control as compared to a diet of acorns, which kept them nourished with a lot of free time on their hands. (

      I agree that co-ops, farmers markets and the other incentives for small farmers you describe currently provide the most likely path towards sane & sustainable food production. I hope someday they find the imagination to explore the possibility of re-instating tree crops of the kind that fed thousands of cultures before they were absorbed into the grain-worshipping global mega-civilisation.

      Ron – Thanks. Absent from much of the discussion about carrying capacity is the understanding that agriculture allows people to raise this ‘ceiling’ artificially. Dan Quinn calls it the ‘food race’ as an analogy to the cold war arms race where one side increasing its nuclear stockpile would lead to the other side mirroring the increase in an ever-ascending positive feedback loop. By putting more land under the plough and/or increasing yields from existing farmland agricultural societies can increase the amount of food available to them. This leads to population growth, followed by a consequent demand for greater food production, which in turn leads to more people… etc. etc. Meanwhile the forests get cut down, the wetlands get drained and the farmers start pouring petrochemicals on their fields and tinkering with the genetic makeup of the domesticated species under their control… When the cheap oil runs out (about now, as it turns out) the agricultural revolution will run out of space to expand into. Practically all the planet’s temperate ecosystems have already been conquered. With the big systems no longer able to pump out as much food as the previous year population will eventually decline accordingly. How far or how fast it will go is anybody’s guess.

      Over all, though, I see this as a welcome process as all the biological wealth we’ve stolen over the past centuries and millennia gets redistributed to the other creatures in the community of life. The trick, I suppose, lies in finding ways to ally ourselves with them in such a way that they still want us around in the new scenario.

      Gael – I’m a fan of food forests in principle. I wonder how it worked in the Amazon and other places where researchers are figuring out that indigenous people engaged in low-level forms of cultivation to favour the growth of tree, shrub and understory species most useful to them. Was it like a modern orchard – jealously guarded and producing exclusively for human needs – or did those people claim no absolute ownership on the abundant harvests and allow other creatures to take according to their own requirements? People say forest gardens can outproduce monoculture farms acre-for-acre, with the implication that we could feed the current population of 6-7 billion from them. Leaving aside the other environmental impacts that these billions have in the rest of their lives, this seems like a win-win situation, IF we allow the bounty to be shared among the other species as well as taking our share. But then wouldn’t there be the same incentive for one food forester to outproduce another by more effectively combating ‘pests’ and thereby getting a bigger harvest, eventually leading to all following the same example lest they go out of business? Then the same situation might occur in 50 years with wild ecologies starving to death and now 20, 30, 50 billion humans all clamouring to be fed. Why take human population numbers as a given?


    • Permaculture is not about unlimited yields. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t understand permaculture principles of which there are three: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares (i.e. share the surplus fairly). In practice, permaculture is a closed-loop system based on the observation of Nature and in which there is no waste as in a natural ecosystem. Nothing in Nature has a ‘theoretically unlimited yield’. It is true that Nature naturally creates abundance under optimal circumstances, but in fact all Nature’s creatures except homo sapiens sapiens knows when to stop growing for the benefit of the whole and a healthy permaculture ecosystem will also limit growth for the sake of the resilience of the whole. Anyone trying to force ‘unlimited yields’ out of an ecosystem is not really a permaculturalist. Permaculture practitioners think in terms of balance and resilience and that’s what ultimately accounts for abundance.

      • Thanks for that, J. I looked it up and the quote originally comes from Bill Mollison: ‘The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited, or, limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.’ ( I see now that he’s “subversively” trying to broaden the concept of yields beyond the usual conception of harvest/product. As the PermaWiki puts it:

        ‘Traditionally, ‘yield’ is thought of as quantity of material output (eg, amounts of potatoes, grain, etc) calculated against resources or effort put in, but there’s no reason why we can’t widen our definition to include information, lessons learned, experience, the health benefits of exercise and being outdoors, or even just plain fun… (

        (Here’s an article that goes into more depth:

        You write: ‘in fact all Nature’s creatures except homo sapiens sapiens knows when to stop growing for the benefit of the whole’. Hmmm, I’m not convinced there’s ever a conscious choice to ‘limit growth’. Doesn’t this have more to do with running into hard limits which don’t permit the growth of populations beyond a certain point? This may come from predation, depletion of food availability or competition from other species until a balance is struck. The trouble with Homo sapiens sapiens (or, rather, with one particular cultural group within that species) is that agriculture gave him the ability to defeat these feedback mechanisms by artificially increasing carrying capacity through expanded food production. This enabled him to defeat those hard limits and expand his population to the extent made possible by the new food surpluses.

        You say: ‘Anyone trying to force ‘unlimited yields’ out of an ecosystem is not really a permaculturalist. Permaculture practitioners think in terms of balance and resilience and that’s what ultimately accounts for abundance.’ – This sounds fine to me; my concern is what happens to the surplus. Does ‘Fair Share’ go beyond the boundaries of the species? Because if all the surplus food goes straight into human mouths, then to me that seems like another invitation for the population numbers to grow even more at the expense of the rest of the living community, in effect creating the ‘peak world population of perhaps 10 or 11 billion’ which Charles took for granted in the above post. If permacultural practices can be harnessed towards that end (though I don’t doubt that many would resist the production emphasis) then I, for one, would curse the day they were discovered.


  9. What a glorious picture. I saw a programme on tv some weeks ago which featured a permaculture garden. The growth was amazing – so luxurious. It made me hungry! (I love my veg and herbs!).
    I have just discovered there is a short permaculture course run in a community college here in Cork City so am aiming to do that when it runs again.
    A 2 years course is run in Kinsale County Cork on permaculture, sustainable development, building with cob, – here is web site for anyone interested.
    and it is great.

  10. Monocropping has never been economically efficient, not if you look at it from the perspective of all the embodied energy that has gone into it. It also strikes me as very naive to imagine that the big agribusinesses are simply going to keel over due to their size…if you think that, you haven’t been following Monsanto’s shenanigans in 2012.

  11. I am working on a project that utilizes permaculture in planed economically self-sufficient eco-villages ajacent to urban food deserts
    . The plan is simple and even has a built in ROI, but I am finding it challenging to find collaborators.

    • “The plan is simple and even has a built in ROI…”

      Hmmm… I think that sort of thinking is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

      The notion that little bits of coloured paper get together in bank vaults, copulate, and reproduce is simply part of the “growth is good” mantra. Fiscal capitalism is just about the worst evil civilization has propagated.

      (Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see ordinary “capitalism” — where one uses the means of production to actually produce something — as a bad thing. But it’s been corrupted by its application to the abstract notion of money, where all one “produces” are changes in magnetized bits on a computer disk.)

  12. Nice article. This, however:

    “Conventional agriculture doesn’t seek to maximize yield per acre; it seeks to maximize yield per unit of labor.”

    is subtly wrong if you ask me. Originally, in the ancient past, sedentary monocropping style agriculture was born of the desires of some to rule. Cities need food, and there’s only so far you can transport grain on an oxcart and still turn a profit. So they had to gather (often forcibly) enough people to farm fields near the city. Lots of people and animals, densely packed, easily legible (and thus taxable) monocrop fields. The labor requirements were great, and the eating poor, especially when compared to the barbarians in the hills. The denseness of animals and people led to epidemics and the transfer of animal diseases to people. Then there was tax and corvée labor on top of that.

    What I’m trying to say that there was not much sense for a serf to stay in the city of not for the threat of violence. The benefit was for the ruler. In the past, manpower was everything, and that arrangement is what allowed the concentration of manpower.

    It is only with the use of oil that the labour requirements for monocropping became low. Before that, mobile swiddening, hunter-gathering or permaculture-style practices yielded a better diet for less work.

    PS: As an interesting aside, they also allowed people to escape from the rule of the state. The primary reason barbarians were inevitably stigmatized by the states of old is twofold: They were not ruled and couldn’t be taxed, and more importantly, represented a very real danger of people literally walking away from the state into places where it couldn’t project it’s power. Apart from the dietary and health benefits, the non-civilized life was apparently pretty addictive, so states regularly hemorrhaged people. Not much of a wonder the people not ruled were painted as backwards folk living lives brutal, miserable and short?

  13. Thanks very much for this article. The summarization has been very useful for a position paper my husband and I are creating on the need for very different methodology when undertaking pit and quarry restorations.

    • Update: morning meeintg rained out. We’ll try again, it may be early next week. Food and agriculture policy are definitely showing symptoms of the same excessive corporate influence on regulation that the financial and banking sectors show. A lot of the folks here grew up on farms and many plan to return to farming. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. ~Molly

  14. You don’t need permaculture to do small-scale agriculture. In fact permaculture actually impedes your efforts because of its anti-evolutionary design orientation. Random mutation provides the material for natural selection and this is how we get new varieties and changes in current varieties to adapt to changing climatic conditions. You can enhance this process by mixing up your seed lines to facilitate crossover, stressing your plants by late planting and minimal watering and weeding, tilling or not tilling for specific crops, etc. These are all techniques that work on the ground by adapting to what is happening, NOT by modifying a landscape based on so-called “design principles” – the basis of permaculture.

    Permaculture is “form follows function.” Toby Hemenway and others.
    Evolution is “function follows form.” Stephen Jay Gould and others.
    They are 180 degrees opposite.

    I have yet to get hard yield numbers from ANY permacultist. I did get a reply once from Jan S. on Salt Spring Island referring me to their website where they supposedly had numbers, but it was impossible to make sense out of mass of data. If you want my hard numbers, they are encapsulated in Table 2, page 123 in my book, “The Laws of Physics Are On My Side,” available on Amazon. Briefly I had an EROI of 3.16 in 2011 with 51.07 kcal grown per square foot. [2012 and 2013 numbers are even higher but the book uses 2011 as a baseline.] This is much higher than industrial agriculture’s EROI of .10 to .14.

    As long as permaculture and the other so-called sustainable systems use excavators, tractors and lots and lots of capital, they are not alternatives. And real alternatives are what we need now.

    [I did check out John Jeavons “How to Grow More Vegetables” but his numbers are specious because they are “what you should be able to grow.” There is no hard data by year or location. Some good ideas but no reliable supporting data.]

    • I don’t think permaculture requires the use of tractors and things, though it doesn’t categorically exclude them in every circumstance either. My understanding, though, is that permaculture is precisely what you say it ISN’T: techniques that work on the ground by adapting to what is happening — and, I will add, what can happen or wants to happen. You are familiar, I assume, with the arguments put forth in _Tending the Wild_ about how Native Americans intentionally shaped North American ecosystems over thousands of years.

      I agree that hard data on caloric or protein yield is hard to come by. To acquire it is much more difficult than with monocrop farms because there isn’t usually a single discrete harvest. And the small scale permaculture farmers don’t have that kind of time and money to carry out a rigorous study. The evidence is anecdotal at this point.

      • Here is my comment: “As long as permaculture and the other so-called sustainable systems use excavators, tractors and lots and lots of capital, they are not alternatives. And real alternatives are what we need now.”

        If permacultists are using hand labor, no problem.

        As an anthropologist, I am well aware of the landscape revisions by indigenous peoples around the world. However, they were NOT starting from a design perspective, as encapsulated by Mollison, Holmgren, Hemenway, Whitefield, et al.

        If permacultists would just get out there with a shovel and do their work and not try and flimflam people with some bogus marketing schtick, I would be supportive.

  15. Thanks for the excellent article, Charles. I just learned about what you are doing and as a fellow activist based in Berlin, am happy to hear you speak some ideas I had been writing about.

    I was wondering why you didn’t mention a limit on meat consumption as part of your vision for 21th century agriculture? It’s animal feedcrops and biofuels that make up most monoculture.

    As a permaculture student about to establish a project base in Spain (with 50% youth unemployment, fertile soils, and a tradition of anarchy the ideal country for a transition! I totally agree with your idea of permaculture. It’s great that permaculture is at the forefront now and a natural part of the transition.

    The key word for me is localization, and I was happy to see that Bill McKibben of says exactly that in Eaarth. Wonderful to see thinking people converging, and happy to live in this deciding decade,

    Warm regards


  16. I’m looking for evidence I can cite for polyculture/permaculture yields. Are there any trials that have made it into the peer reviewed literature. Otherwise, I unfortunately have to conclude for my research, the same as anyone else, that we’ll lose about 30% or yield by going organic. If poly/permaculture really can increase yields it would be really good if someone would study it properly and publish it so that we can use that information. Otherwise, it’s a nice story…

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