Summary of “Human Permaculture. Life design for resilient living”: This book, based on the permaculture principles of eco-responsibility, offers concrete human management methods to handle the problems humanity is encountering in this period of ecological transition (food, society, organisation, etc.).
By Bernard Alonso and Cécile Guiochon, 2016, 206 pages.
Note: This is a guest chronicle written by Laura Nicolas of the blog Ma Petite Forêt, dedicating to mounting educational projects in nature
Chronicle and summary of “Human Permaculture. Life design for resilient living”
Introduction: Guiding individuals and groups through the transition
Our world has reached the end of a cycle: after constant human use over several generations, natural resources are running out. Societies are already organising group practices that aim to save energy and other essential resources (car pooling, shared gardens, exchanges, etc.). But the demographic growth of the planet (9 billion people in 2050, with 3 out of every 4 human beings living in a town or city) makes the transition towards new group practices even more urgent. How will we react in the event of energy, social and economic collapse? No more transport because there is no more petrol, no more internet because there is no more electricity, no more work because there is no more cash flow… Worse still, no more food or water in overpopulated urban settings1.
The solution: permaculture applied to humans
For the authors of this book, the solution lies in downscaled production and consumption of resources that are genuinely available. And sharing them among individuals. Permaculture, a concept that first appeared in the 1970’s2, is a response to this challenge to society. It involves farming based on a global approach in which all elements of nature are interrelated. When transferred to human management, the concept of “human permaculture” and its methods offer an innovative vision of the links between human beings and between humans and their eco-systems:
- Multiply interactions between individuals (sharing and exchange of resources instead of production and personal gain).
- Produce more energy than you consume (to share it),
- Use simple tools that are not dependent on new technologies (easier to produce and repair).
Alonso and Guiochon guide readers step by step as they discover the principles and methods of human permaculture in four sections that are beautifully illustrated by Marie Quilvin. The book begins with an explanation of the key principles of human permaculture (part 1). The authors then invite readers to appropriate these keys by designing their own lives (part 2). They go on to demonstrate the role of eco-systems (water, land, etc.) in human survival and offer the keys to harmonious cohabitation with the elements that are vital to our survival (part 3). Finally, part 4 looks at what we eat, a central part of permaculture, offering precise information that will lead readers to food independence.
What is your impact on the planet (carbon and ecological)?
The introduction ends with an assessment of the reader’s carbon impact and ecological footprint. Carbon impact assesses the impact of one person’s actions on greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore on climate.
The ecological footprint corresponds to an assessment of the impact of our actions on natural resources (we currently consume the resources of one and half planets!). In parallel, calculating the ecological footprint shows an individual person’s reliance on fossil fuel or renewable energy. To put it shortly, in the event of an energy crisis, what are our chances of survival?
When making the different calculations, take the following into account:
- The size of your living space
- The number of kilowatts/hour of electricity consumed per year,
- The age of your refrigerator,
- The number of kilometres travelled by car and by public transport,
- Your consumption of meat, fish, dairy products and bottled water – and that of your pets,
- The quantity of household waste,
- The budget spent on electronic equipment, shoes and clothing,
- The duration and frequency of your leisure trips.
The authors recommend carrying out your carbon impact assessment on the website footprintnetwork.org/.
The goal of the book is to offer simple tools to reduce our carbon footprint, engage in a successful ecological transition and succeed in this together.
Chapter 1. The keys to human permaculture
Definition and foundations of classic permaculture
The authors begin by defining permaculture, in the spirit of the founders of the concept, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It is “a systemic approach that makes it possible to create viable ecosystems inspired by the laws of nature”. This approach offers “combines a holistic approach with local solutions that seek to limit the negative impacts of human activities on the planet”.
The laws underpinning this approach are the following:
- Ecosystems evolve and transform,
- The interrelation between these ecosystems and their diversity allows life to exist and to be renewed,
- Permaculture aims to organise human activities on the basis of these 3 dimensions (transformation, diversity and interactions between elements).
The philosophical foundations of permaculture are that life regenerates by itself, tending towards existence under any circumstance in an infinite and abundant manner. As part of nature, humans are particular in their ability to think. This brings great responsibility when it comes to managing natural eco-systems. Anchored in this concept of responsibility, the vision of permaculture is found in the word itself. The word “permaculture” is a contraction of “permanent” and “culture” (in an agricultural and cultural dimension). The concept of “permaculture” therefore goes well beyond the question of farming to encompass any dynamic of life that imitates the natural laws of ecosystems.
These are the three rules of permaculture:
- Care for the Earth
- Care for Humans
- Share resources fairly and redistribute the surplus.
Organised around these 3 rules, the 12 principles of permaculture are represented by the image below:
Change the world, starting with yourself
Any approach to permaculture begins with self-transformation. We are part of the ecosystem and we cannot change it without starting with ourselves. This philosophy of life was aptly summarised by the famous legend of the Hummingbird, applied and spread by Pierre Rabhi:
One day, a huge fire was raging through the forest. Terrified, the animals
fled the disaster. Only the hummingbird, the smallest bird in the forest,
flitted into action. Back and forth, back and forth it flew, darting between
the pond and the blaze, carrying a few drops of water in its tiny
beak with every trip. Bothered by this pitiful effort, the armadillo called out,
“Hummingbird! How foolish you are! You can’t possibly believe you will
extinguish the fire one drop at a time! Flee with us!”
The hummingbird replied, “I won’t put the fire out all by myself, but I’m doing my part.”
The contagion of good examples makes the strength of human groups. It is what finally leads to the transformation of humanity. This transformation always starts within and moves towards the outside. The authors propose the following steps:
- Quitting denial (look squarely at how satisfied or dissatisfied you are with your own life),
- Daring to be yourself (accept that you are different from others),
- Going beyond simplistic solutions (avoid copy-paste solutions),
- Staying positive, creative and confident,
- Celebrating life! (Rejoice in the small things that life has to offer).
Nature is a model!
Reconnecting with our place in nature is an essential approach for anyone who wants to experience permaculture. Human beings arrived late to the planet. If we summarise it as the time on a 24 hour clock, then we arrived at 2 minutes before midnight! However, human development was so fast, compared to that of other elements, that they very quickly believed that they were the masters. Reconnecting with nature is the unassailable condition for restoring stability to ecosystems that we have so quickly destabilised.
This return to nature comes through an approach in which we imitate it: biomimicry3. This approach supposes that a solution to any problem can be found by observing nature. At least one species existed before us that has faced this problem and found out how to put strategies in place to resolve it or adapt to it. One of the major lessons that observing nature teaches us is that there is no hierarchy – everyone has a place and a role to play. Above all, there is cooperation between species and this cooperation alone allows the survival of the entire eco-system. We should change our anthropocentric way of looking at things and envisage cooperating with the elements that surround us.
Integrate rather than segregate!
The concept of the “ecological niche” designates the place occupied by a species (its position within the ecosystem, its living conditions, habitat, etc.). Every species has a complementary place in common, turned towards the common good and the sustainability of the ecosystem. All? Except humans! The next two characteristics are what separate us from other species:
- Every human being has a personality that asks to thrive culturally and find its own place (niche) within the species itself,
- Humans are conscious of their own existence and can question their place in the world: they can choose their place, their role, their status, etc.
Our place is not embedded in our genetic heritage. We need to find it, and to do that, we need to break free from the social mould in which we are raised. Finding your own niche, place and reason for being, is a prerequisite for any contribution to a collective project.
To do this, let’s use the incredible faculties of the two hemispheres of our brains!
In our society, we tend to use the left hemisphere – the one that analyses, reasons, classifies, argues and excludes – more than the right one.
The left hemisphere is the place where artistic, emotional and imaginary elements reside, the things that are not highly valued in our school system. But it is absolutely essential for the two hemispheres to work together, taking the time to feel before analysing everything.
On this subject, another article summarises the content of the book “Libérez votre cerveau” by Idriss Aberkane -in French).
Finding our individual niche leads us to the collective. The end goal of every species is its own survival. Our society has become so technical that we tend to forget about this collective issue (we don’t realise that we need others to survive – and vice versa!). Therefore, we need to learn how to survive again, to leave behind the individualistic habits of our formative years. To help us do this, human permaculture proposes a strategy known as “design”.
Chapter 2. Design: a “how-to” guide
The word “design” refers to a “set of practices for conceiving, planning, arranging, and structuring a space, project, group, relationship, or organization to make it fertile, abundant, and sustainable”. The authors apply this definition to the approach to permaculture in which design involves being inspired by the laws of nature in order to determine the best strategies and ensure the system is viable and resilient. Each design is unique because it responds to a specific problem or project. The goal of the design is to achieve maximum autonomy (food, energy, social, etc.) for the group.
Design is not a linear process, but an interactive one, made up of constant designing and redesigning between the different steps. However, a design always contains these nine phases:
This involves observing the situation in which we find ourselves (professional, family, etc.) without analysing it or seeking solutions. In silence, calmly, listen to your feelings as you observe each element of your daily life. Note these emotional reactions from 1 (weak) to 5 (strong). Then remember the situations that provoke positive reactions – “expansion” – (joy, enthusiasm, fervour, passion…) to increase their frequency in your daily life. Conversely, note the ones that provoke “contraction” (stress, anxiety, sadness…) in order to progressively remove them from your daily life.
2. Identify the border effect
The “border effect” originally defined the areas of land where there was a frontier between two environments (for example, between a field and a forest). These areas are generally very fertile. In this case, it involves identifying what forms of cooperation and exchange of skills with others will be mutually most beneficial. For example, professionally, associating with a stonemason or a carpenter can offer complementarity when working in construction.
3. Determine resources and needs
At this stage, take the following factors into account:
- Available internal resources (human, natural, material, financial, etc.),
- External resources for the project (look at other successful projects, appropriate their tools, information, contact, networking, etc.),
- Limiting external factors (regulatory, economic, cultural, climate, etc.)
- Material and intangible needs (food, water, premises, revenue, means of transport, training, etc.).
4. Evaluate and sort the data gathered
Once these factors have been identified, make an inventory of them, focusing on the most important ones for the life of the project. By doing this, the “guiding line” of the project will emerge, the roadmap, or the “raison d’être”.
5. Discover, connect and analyse the niches
At this stage, the authors suggest drawing a large letter T for each contributor to the project. To the right of their T, each member of the group writes down the roles they want to play within the project – their tastes, skills, hobbies, advantages, etc. Below that, the person writes down the elements that they or the other members of the group have identified as their strengths. To the left of the T, the person writes down their needs. Below this, they write down what they feel to be their weaknesses.
Now all of the participants show their Ts. As things move forward, complementary roles will appear to show where the project niche itself is located. It is important not to squeeze the roles and needs of contributors into a pre-established project, but to take the opposite approach. The project will find its place in the world in relation to the niches of the contributors.
6. Dreaming and Brainstorming
Now comes a creative part, where you allow yourself to dream of all the possibilities. Allow your inspiration to weave dreams around the previously defined guiding line. This step needs some time, and you can do it while you are out walking, gardening, during free time, etc. Conceptual tools such as mind maps can be useful at this stage.
7. Functional design
The authors go on to list a number of questions, the positive answers to which will allow members of the group to make sure that their project is a realistic one. Here they are:
- “Does the project address an ecosystem-level need (within the group or society)? What is it?
- Will it generate a yield? For whom?
- Will it produce more energy than it consumes?
- Is the project benefit all elements or people in the system and beyond?
- Will each element exist in relation to the other elements in the system?
- Will each element or member occupy multiple functions?
- Have you fully taken into account the diversity of assets, strengths, and weaknesses of
- each person and of the project itself?
- Does the project have the means to realize its underlying ambitions? Is it viable?
- What will make it last?
- Have you evaluated its environmental, social, and economic impact?” (p.67).
8. Install and implement the design
This is the moment when the right hemisphere of the brain plays its favourite part: implementing the project, through analysis and reflection. Be sure, however, to remain flexible and envisage all eventualities!
9. Maintain the sustainability of the design
The project’s capacity to self-regulate is the final condition of its success: the collective project must be considered in such a way as to “go it alone”. If the members need to constantly readjust the fundamental parts of the project, then those parts should be redefined.
Chapter 3. Caring for the Earth
Biodiversity, the key to balance
Alonso and Guiochon start this vast chapter with a reminder about biodiversity, which they define as “all forms of life on Earth, from the very smallest to the very largest — the sum total of the complex interactions they perform, their functions, and their life strategies.” (p.82). The richness of the biodiversity of our planet offers many services to humans:
- Supply (water, energy, food, resources, etc.),
- Regulation (water storage and purification, regulating illness and climate),
- Support (habitats for plants and animals, raw materials),
- Cultural (relaxation, attractive landscapes, means of learning, etc.).
These days, the biodiversity of natural ecosystems (water, soil and forest) is in danger due to human activity. For example, the authors provide the figures given by the NGO WWF that demonstrate that in 2014, 50% of wildlife species had disappeared since 1970. And yet, the survival of the human species intrinsically depends on the survival of other species. If we carry on like this “We ignore their decline at our peril,” concludes WWF. In addition to this, the rise in temperature massively increases water evaporation, which – through a vicious circle effect – amplifies intense climate phenomena.
Water is life
Water is the primary resource we need to preserve. It makes up 70% of the human body and keeps all species alive.
The authors summarise the essential information about water management and the importance of this precious liquid by:
- Describing the natural and technical cycles of water,
- Reminding readers that humans have always historically lived close to water sources,
- Showing that chains of agricultural and industrial pollution destabilise the natural cycle and place water tables in danger,
- Listing the needs for clean water among the world’s population (100l/day per person is comfortable; 50l/day per person is decent; 20l/day per person is enough for survival; 2 to 3l/day per person are of vital necessity for human life),
- Highlighting global inequalities in access to water (1 human being out of 3 has no access to water and lives in a state of water stress)
- Noting that just 7% of potable water is used for drinking and washing food. The remaining 93% is used for hygiene and cleaning.
To prevent this waste, water management is at the heart of permaculture design. The authors provide a list of practices that can save water (use water several times, if possible; install dry composting toilets, capture rain water, reduce watering, etc.).
Soil, too, is life
Most of biodiversity is located below the earth’s surface. One square metre of soil contains up to 260 million animal species (and twice as many plant species!). And they all have their uses. Soil has a number of functions:
- Maintaining biomass, through forests and prairies, which can produce food,
- Water regulation,
- Water depollution.
The earth offers a thousand services to humans (raw materials for our housing, our clothing, our daily items, nutrients, etc.). The problem is that it is a non-renewable and limited resource that is degrading massively because of devastating industrial practices. Arable land – that can be farmed – only makes up 1/4 of the planet, and we continue to decimate it. Faced with this situation, permaculture aims to restore, maintain and increase the self-regenerative quality of soil using 5 basic principles from observing how soil functions naturally:
- Keep the soil covered (with mulching),
- Let the soil breathe (do not walk on farmed areas because this deprives micro-organisms of water and oxygen),
- Do not turn soil over (worms do this job very well!),
- Diversify and combine crops that “get along together” (like humans, plants have points in common with some of their fellows!),
- Let all plant residue decompose naturally (it provides natural mulch that protects against temperature changes).
Chapter 4. Caring for people
This chapter completes the circle drawn by the authors. After the previous part devoted to ecosystems, in the final part we return to human practices that integrate these ecosystems on a daily basis. There is a discussion about food production in permaculture, water management and dietary habits (plant and animal).
Permacultivate our food
To eat and to drink are the two principal human needs. Current food models are anything but sustainable: too dependent on fossil fuels, pollutant, deadly for biodiversity, they are bound to disappear in the near future. How can we replace them, when you consider that there will be almost 9 billion of us on the planet by 2050, with 2/3 of people living in cities? The problem is not so much a lack of food as unequal distribution of food resources due to a lack of financial means among a large portion of the population. We need to change the current system of exchange (food = money) and replace it with food distribution that is not conditioned by the financial means of consumers.
To do this, the model of family, local and sustainable agriculture is recognised as suitable. But what is it based on? Alonso and Guiochon propose starting by searching for your own “fair food” in relation to your situation (health, habitat, geographical location, etc.). In other terms, find the diet that is most beneficial for oneself and one’s environment: vegetarian, raw food, local consumer, paleo or Mediterranean diet, gluten or alkaline free, etc. (the choice is vast!).
Then, permacultivators rely on the principle of biomimicry to propose a detailed observation of the diets of wild animals that have an anatomy, physiology diet and eating habits that are suited to the food available where they live. They also use clan strategies to hunt better. And let’s not forget that natural selection plays a part in keeping the species going.
In contrast to animals, only humans:
- Try to adapt their environment to their needs,
- Eat foodstuffs that are imported from outside their close territory,
- Can eat more food than they truly need, at the risk of an adverse effect on their health.
Homo Industrialis has succeeded over the course of history in breaking the bond that linked him to the production of local food. But for how long? And at what cost?
The human constitution is omnivorous. Humans need a varied diet, but one that is always in proportion to the energy they use every day. The necessary balance of the “human terrain” is close to that of the soil: permacultivators seek to look after their diet in the same way they look after what they grow, by balancing foodstuffs. For example, by alternating between alkaline products (fresh fruits and vegetables) at 80% and acidifying products (cereals, pulses, dairy products) at 20%. This maintains a balanced pH.
Water, a vital element
Water: a common good that is poorly shared and threatened by pollution
Spring water, the best water source that is supposed to be potable, is no longer safe to drink. This is because of numerous chemical products found in the soil. In industrialised countries, tap water, captured from underground and surface water sources, has replaced spring water. Bottled water, that is supposed to be better than tap water, is sold on a large scale by industrials. In France, the market is 6 billion litres sold per year, generating 240,000 tonnes of plastic waste and production costs that are 100 to 300 times higher than for tap water. This creates sales revenue of 2 billion euro (Nestlé and Danone).
Bottled water also contains micropollutants (nitrate, aluminium, antimony and lead). The NGO WWF recommends ignoring the “bottled water versus tap water” debate in favour of protecting natural water sources.
Caring for water in permaculture
The authors recommend the following:
- Maintaining wells and rivers,
- Regular analysis of the quality of these natural water sources,
- Working with local authorities to reduce the risk of pollution,
- Filtering the water we recover,
- Returning it to the soil to feed water tables.
- Using recovered water to wash your car, water the garden, fill the toilet,
- Discarding toxic house cleaning products that pollute water.
Techniques for filtering fresh water and improving tap water are available. The authors recommend that readers find out more at the Eautarcie site.
Food from plants
The ancestral biodiversity of the plant world that can be consumed by humans has reduced considerably. From the 7000 plants cultivated by humans over the course of history, just 4 (rice, corn, wheat and potatoes) now form the basis of the human diet. This drastic reduction has negative effects on our health and on the balance of ecosystems. And the plots of land farmed by small farmers continue to disappear in favour of intensive single-crop farms.
Agro-ecology is a field that combines the science and practice of agriculture and ecology and it offers a number of ideas. It aims to:
- Recycle organic matter on site
- Develop soil fertility,
- Cultivate biodiversity
- Seek balance for the entire agricultural system,
- Reduce poverty by making farmers independent from external fertiliser suppliers,
- Consistently research and innovate by working with species considered to be pests, Instead of eradicating them, it places them at a distance and uses characteristics of the species for its own benefit (the principle of repulsion – attraction),
- Encourage the production and exchange of seeds and demand that they circulate freely to avoid the monopoly held by the big seed companies5,
- Push farmers to boycott products that contain GMOs,
- Aim to produce organic local food in the countryside and in cities (e.g. Educational garden forests in urban areas),
- Encourage populations to produce plant foods at home, to harvest and cook wild resources and preserve vegetables (e.g. using lacto-fermentation), etc.
Alonso and Guiochon end the book by suggesting that readers create their own permaculture design to feed their own families based on the 9 steps described in chapter 1 and using the practices suggested throughout the book.
Conclusion about “Human Permaculture”:
This work highlights the fundamental bond that unites all the species that populate the planet. What is good for human health relies on what is good for other species. And vice-versa. It is about a complementary relationship of solidarity, not human domination over other species. Human domination contributes to the extinction of biodiversity and, consequently, the extinction of the human race.
Becoming an agent of change requires the courage to change our own habits. What is interesting about this book is that it gives a series of techniques, tips and ideas to progressively bring about this change. In contrast to preconceived notions, permaculture is not simply related to agricultural production. It is an approach to changing life, in all its aspects. It leads us to reconsider our lifestyle, our work, our living spaces and our consumer habits. That is why “Human Permaculture” is not a recipe book, but a book that is firmly rooted in the field of personal development. It constantly brings us back to human beings, to our psychology, our vital needs and the consumer methods that suit us. In a cascading effect, changing oneself leads to changing one’s habits, and in consequence changing the world!
On a personal level, “Human Permaculture” brought about a profound change in my life (professional, geographical and social).
I moved away from Paris, where I lived and worked, and I moved to a rural area. I adopted a remote working lifestyle and applied the principles of permaculture to my daily life – both in how I managed relationships and the groups I facilitate and how I ate. A market garden, an animal refuge, a socio-cultural and educational association, etc.
This book was also the starting point for my blog Mon Livre en 180 secondes, that offers tools for group communication. The goal of this blog, along with the tools of human permaculture and non-violent communication, is to promote the emergence of groups of human beings who know how to communicate better and act better for our own good and that of the planet.
In short, this book and others like it brought me to a genuine ecological and social transition…
Strong Points of Human Permaculture:
- Highly educational and well organised (the authors get to the point, raising the most relevant topics progressively and very clearly),
- Magnificently illustrated: pictures, inserts, alternating styles (narrative, explanatory, analytical, demonstrative) that brighten the process of reading,
- Clarity of expression on the part of the authors as they make sometimes complex subjects easy to understand,
- Rigorous knowledge developed by the authors and the references they provide so that readers can deeper their knowledge of such and such a question.
Weak Points of Human Permaculture:
It is difficult to find any weak points in this book. I would say however that I would like to have seen the principle of permaculture applied to the field of education in the group management section. Permaculture design often involves intergenerational exchanges and they introduce the question of knowledge transmission. This concept is at the heart of permaculture (reproducing ancestral techniques, taking psycho-social factors into consideration in methods of human consumption, long-term vision, etc.), but the book does not really develop it. Human transition cannot take place without education about knowledge transmission and evolving educational or training principles. I would like to know the authors’ point of view about these fundamental aspects of the transition.
My rating :
Have you read “Human Permaculture”? How do you rate it?
Read more reviews on Amazon about “Human Permaculture”
Buy on Amazon “Human Permaculture”