A Way Back to Eden

food forest

The bounty of Permaculture: Could it be the source of life after the death of the industrial age? (Photo by hardworkinghippy/Flickr)

The second story the Bible tells us, right after recounting how God created Heaven and Earth, and set humans up in a bountiful garden, is the story of how we got kicked out of the garden. Historians believe that the story of the Fall has been told for 10,000 years, which is about how long we’ve had agriculture. (Coincidence? I don’t think so.) For ten millennia we have lamented the exchange of a life of ease and plenty for our hardscrabble existence marked by loss and pain.

When I contemplate the coming crash of the Industrial Age, when I visualize its massive wreckage, I have come to believe that I can see, in all the smoke and horror, a path leading back to the Garden that was once our birthright, and could be again.

After all the time we have been telling each other this story, you’d think we’d have a pretty good grasp of its contents, if not its larger meaning. But we mostly seem to think it has something to do with disobedience, or eating an apple, or associating with serpents, or something. But the Bible is quite clear: we were booted for arrogance — for claiming for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil.” (My layman’s close reading of the story in Genesis is the prologue of my book Brace for Impact.)

When we presumed to know the difference between good plants (crops) and evil plants (weeds), between helpful animals (domesticate them!) and evil animals (eradicate them!), between bees (build hives for them! On 18-wheelers! Truck them all over the country and make tons of money!) and mosquitoes (eradicate them!), we lost our residency in the Garden and began a centuries-long war with Creation, a violent and destructive struggle to bend it to our purposes. It’s a war we are now in the last stages of losing decisively.

We got kicked out of Eden, God said to a friend (or somebody — the quote in Genesis is intriguing) lest we lay hands on the Tree of Life itself. By which I take Him to mean lest we, no longer content with the physical destruction we have wrought, start tinkering around with the ultimate mystery, our genetic code.

I have always assumed that the story of the Garden and our Fall was metaphorical, meant to be instructive and not understood as a literal description of two incompatible approaches to living on Earth. Now I am not so sure.

I have become a novitiate in the study and practice of Permaculture — restorative agriculture whose goal is to grow abundant food by nurturing the web of life, instead of destroying it as industrial agriculture does. Permaculture teaches us to contemplate our fields for a long time, before intervening gently and helpfully to husband their water, replenish their soils, assemble their plants into guilds of mutually beneficial species from subsoil fungi to lofty oak trees. One of the results of this behavior is the emergence of a food forest, a source of an abundance of fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms that requires no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, no petroleum-fueled tillage, no irrigation, little labor for its maintenance, and that flourishes for decades if not centuries.

Sounds like Eden to me.

Permaculture, as I am just beginning to understand it, is sustainable agriculture raised to a new level and extended into every aspect of life. For example, one of the requirements of its practice, one that is so alien to the attitude of the industrial age as to be almost incomprehensible to us, is the commitment required to a piece of land. It is a commitment not of years but of generations, not by an individual but an entire family at least, a whole community at most.

People are doing this now. People born captives of an iron industrial age, taught to exploit, destroy and move on, mercenary nomads conditioned to expect immediate gratification, are learning how to nurture slow abundance not only in beautiful and hospitable places but in desert places, in depleted and injured and tainted places. And they are finding that as the land in their care heals, so do they and their families and their associations.

In a real sense they are going back to Eden. Maybe it’s possible, while the destroyers reap the whirlwind of their destruction, to create the beginnings of a new world from which the curse of our presumption — to know the difference between good and evil, as if we were gods — has been lifted.

For me, the possibility is enough to keep me from despair, and to make me want to live long enough to see the other side of the coming cataclysm. I’d like to give my forwarding address as: a state of grace.

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40 Responses to A Way Back to Eden

  1. Tom says:

    Go for it, Mr. Lewis. Gardening is one of the greatest pleasures humans can enjoy.
    Being part of nature is wonderful, humbling, and can lead to a pleasant spiritual state (especially when combined with meditation). It all starts with the soil, worms, some moisture and a somewhat constant temperature within which the plants mature. If you haven’t tried interacting with Mother Nature in this way, do so before the climate becomes too erratic. Enjoy!

  2. Tim says:

    I discovered permaculture almost two years ago and it completely changed my direction in life. It has a lot of potential to help cure some of the wounds we’ve inflicted, while providing a framework for a long term, sustainable society.

  3. Rob Rhodes says:

    Daniel Quinn makes a good case that the original Eden story was told by those who were displaced from the ‘garden’ by the early farmers of the agricultural revolution. Their descendants eventually became farmers too but the story survived.

    Information from the last 25 years or so now indicate that much of the Amazon basin was managed as a food forest by its aboriginal inhabitants, seen intact only by the very first Europeans to pass through and so quickly nearly extinguished by disease that early settlers discounted the early explorer’s story.

  4. KC says:

    I have gardened most my life. I love it. But permaculture is not sustainable. Read the book Farmers of 40 Centuries which inspired the permaculture movement. The Chinese created a very successful agriculture system that was documented by F. H King back in the early 1900’s. He was in awe at what they had done and it was truly awesome The result was too many people, almost all the land devoted to human uses, and the beginnings of erosion on mountainsides etc. They did agriculture so much better, so much smarter than the Europeans and Americans and thus they created a much bigger population problem.

    Jared Diamond considers agriculture as the worst mistake humans made http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html although arguably one could put that down to tool use or taming fire.

    There is no Eden, but if there were it would be the Hunter-Gatherer way of life that we evolved to live. Unfortunately we are Too Smart for Our Own Good – per Craig Dilworth.

    And then there are the 400 nuclear power plants that will go Chernbobyl when the grid fails and virtually every inch of earth’s soil will be contaminated for when the grid fails there will be no cooling of the plants AND NO ability to try to contain the subsequent meltdowns.

    Don’t dream of Eden. Garden now because you enjoy it. Do whatever you enjoy because time is short.

    • daniel reich says:

      Oh,do let us dream….it’s all we have left. Let’s not forget to love one another in these dwindling days of our so-called life. Sorry if I sound a bit preachy…

      • KC says:

        Facing reality doesn’t end dreams, it just makes dreams more realistic. For instance instead of planting trees that will take years to mature, you might want to plant annuals or quick maturing perennials. You might want to visit all the places you never went to before starting a big garden. As kids how often were our dreams about what we would get this Christmas. They weren’t about adding years to our lives but about the here and now. Dream up what you want to do most tomorrow and do it.

        However even if we discount the nuclear plant blowup, and horrible weather from warming, it seems to me that most permaculture is nothing more than dreams, unlike the serious permaculture the Chinese practiced not for joy but for day to day survival. For instance in the picture with this article is a wheel barrow and a garden hose. Well the wheelbarrow might last for a while after a crash, but the garden hose has limited life. What then? In fact what then when you have no electricity to pump water. I put in a hand pump in a drilled well 10 years ago. I quickly realized I would never be able to water our garden by hand pumping – it would take all day leaving no time for anything else. Could hook it up to a solar panel but they have a limited life too…..If anyone wants to extend their survival by permaculture they should try doing it with only the tools they have made themselves and using no electricity or fossil fuels of any sort in any part of the process.

        I bought a Hand Washing machine 10 years ago as well. I do use only that for washing our clothes but of course it is metal and has a manufactured clothes ringer. The thought of doing a wash by hand pumping the water and then heating the water by fire….daunting. And wood for heat, how many are cutting trees with hand saws instead of chain saws. I did until my aging body started breaking down. And of course I bought my handsaws, how would I make my own.

        I wish 10 years ago I had been more realistic, realized I wasn’t going to be able extend survival very long and had done things in a way that made those 10 years more enjoyable. Sure growing your own food is good. I love it. But a few more trips to the mountains when my aging body was more up to long road trips, that would have been good. Now I can’t do anything in the garden for more than 30 mins. Have to change what body part I use by doing something different. Can’t stand a car ride longer than 1 hour.

        So dream a dream, not of living longer while everyone around you is dying (that is good?) but dream a dream of what you want to do with whatever time you have. Do it for the pleasure in doing

        • Tom Lewis says:

          Again, KC, please find out a little more about Permaculture before dismissing it as “nothing more than dreams.” Every treatise on the subject I have read, for example, begins by dealing with irrigating without electricity, pumps or hoses. I point this out not because I want to change your personal choices, they are obviously yours, but to try to make sure those interested in these differences of opinion get a balanced impression of what we’re talking about.

          • KC says:

            “Every treatise on the subject I have read, for example, begins by dealing with irrigating without electricity, pumps or hoses”

            Yes Tom I know that is what they say. Have you visited any permaculture projects that don’t use any of the products of industrial society. I have visited permaculture farms and every one I visited did use the products of industrial society. Have you fed yourself and your family from permaculture entirely without using any products of industrial society?

            Since you and most here are ghung ho on survival after the fall via permaculture, aren’t my comments the balancing factor?

            Never mind, the work ahead of you is hard. Good luck. I won’t pester you with my alternative and balancing views any more. KC

        • PMB says:

          Thank you KC for sharing that personal story based on your experience. Others may often dismiss anecdotal evidence, but I find they contain the most beneficial and wise lessons of life.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Please learn enough about Permaculture to understand that it is not gardening, and it is not agriculture. Then if you wish to dismiss it, be my guest. (The nuclear plants worry me plenty, but I’m not sure the “virtually every inch” thing is supportable?)

  5. witsendnj says:

    I agree with KC that permaculture is not going to solve our problems, but mainly because agriculture is not the issue – growth is. No matter how responsibly people farm, it isn’t sustainable if they are living in places that would be uninhabitable without burning something or other for heat. This was as true for hunter gatherers as it is now (I highly recommend a beautifully written, free online book – http://megafauna.com/table-of-contents/ which puts into context exactly how destructive humans were, thousands of years before agriculture – not only directly by hunting dozens of splendid species, but altering entire ecosystems, causing desertification).

    People simply don’t seem to be able to restrain themselves from destroying natural habitat and driving animals to extinction to feed our innate drive to grow. It began with using tools but we were restricted in range. Finding fire enabled humans to step outside of nature and defy constraints to growth – predators and limits based on suitable climate for naked, hairless apes. So rather than the story of Eden, I look to the Greeks who had hubris pretty well nailed in the myth of Icarus, folly in the myth of Pandora, and fire with this one: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-blame-prometheus.html

    Civilizations always fall, history is littered with them. Now that we have a global civilization, it will be a global collapse, with no place left to migrate or invade.

    So as a life-long gardener, I see nothing wrong with pursuing permaculture. But it’s not going to fix the problems of climate, pollution and deforestation which will continue to worsen as we will never deliberately reduce population or consumption rates rather, as long as we can, they will increase.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I do not argue that Permaculture “is going to solve our problems.” Of course it’s “not going to fix the problems of climate, pollution and deforestation” because nothing can, except the crash itself. You’ve been a friend of this website long enough to know my mantra, which remains; it’s too late to save everyone, but not to late to save anyone. I have no need to persuade you or anyone to change your assumption that after the crash there will be “no place left…” For my part, and for people close to me, I choose to believe that for some people in certain places it will be possible to survive and perhaps even flourish after the death of this cancerous society.

      • PMB says:

        Did you mean “I choose to believe” instead of “I choose the believe”? I just want to have clarity as that sentence is key to the debate on this topic that seems to be ongoing. If that belief is something you are choosing because it enables you to find relief in our somewhat precarious situation then it’s your panacea. Your more than welcome to it, but it does nothing to invalidate the possibility (a very real one at that) that the planet may no longer be a place which allows for humans to exist.

        I had friends in the 80’s who believed that if they “choose to believe” that nothing would happen to them by having unprotected sex that nothing would happen to them. Sadly, they are now dust in the wind and their deaths were slow, painful and humiliating.

        I was told of relatives who lived in Eastern Europe in the 1930s who refused to believe that anything would happen to them as others begged them to leave. Well they became ashes lost in the wind.

        Today, many, if not all who choose to believe that some technology will be invented which will result in everything coming out all right can’t be dissuaded from this line of thought.

        It’s all well and good to do things(and most won’t or don’t), but it’s just as important to realize that choosing to believe does not make it so. Despite Oprah and “the Secret” fade that’s long since faded, believing in something is not the way the world works, at least it hasn’t for me.

        I see nothing wrong with coming to accept that there will be no humans left on the planet by mid century and most likely by end of this century once we have destroyed all other life forms upon which we depend.

        I don’t understand why humans seem so stubborn in not considering that they will go extinct just as many life forms have previously and that many went extinct primarily due to the behaviors of human beings.

        Ask if anyone remembers the dodo bird, the carrier pigeon or the time when you could put your hand in the east river and pull out a handful of clams or oysters. Probably you’ll get nothing more than a look of disbelief in response to your question. Within a very few years you’ll see the same response regarding elephants, hippos and rhinos as well as the monarch butterfly. When humans are gone there will be no one to remember that there ever was humans on the planet.

        A permaculture story to share. Once upon a time I attended the Northeast Permaculture gathering and the grand poobah himself, Dave Jacke, was holding court. It wondered if this was how councils of war felt during the crusades. Seems the emperor was not in agreement with how permaculture was being promoted and used in the south west of the good old USA. Something had to be done, we (meaning he) had to come up with a plan to bring these folks in line with good permie practices.

        If one kept centered while this “discussion” was going on they could feel the spirits of Stanley Millgram, Jane Elliot, Philip Zimbardo, and Todd Strasser hovering over the group. Having gone up against Jacke previously I decided for a change to hold my tongue and see how this would play out. Not a single person raised any objections to this decidedly non-permaculture behavior. They all went along with the leader. The meeting broke up with nothing decided (I don’t believe anything every came out of that meeting) and I just walked away saddened and disgusted that permaculture was nothing more than another illusion. You go along to get along.

        • Tom Lewis says:

          Yes, I meant “I choose to believe.” And if you, having read the piece and a little bit of what’s going on here, equate that choice with believing no harm can come from unprotected sex. then we are just not communicating. People, including scientists, often have to choose among unproven hypotheses and move along, long before all the results are in.

  6. SomeoneInAsia says:

    With respect to those who contend that the presence of humans is inherently harmful to the biosphere, I sometimes wonder if their purpose is to argue that no particular group of humans is especially guilty of acts of violence against Nature, that all of us, given the ‘right’ historical and geographical factors, would have done the same things as the Europeans of the last couple centuries. Certainly such a thesis would seem likely to help ease the conscience of certain people.

    Well, I think history has shown quite clearly that there have been at least a few civilizations that have been able to keep themselves going for millennia by drawing upon their renewable resource base in a sustainable manner. No overtaxing of resources here (or else I’d like to know how on earth they could have lasted for thousands of years). Ancient Egypt and premodern China come to mind. Surely there must have been something they did right — at least part of the time they were around — and surely these examples show that it’s perfectly possible to have a working, sustainable society that can provide its members with a becoming human existence while at the same time respecting the limits of Nature.

    My two cents. Take or leave them. (I’m sure Mr Lewis is saying the same with respect to his views.)

    • PMB says:

      That was, as Bill McKibben has said, and he’s no hero to me an entirely different planet. One sans overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, etc., etc.

      Without fossil fuels would those societies you mention have been able to last in perpetuity or would they have crashed ala Sumeria, Rome, Mayans, etc. etc.

      Humans are part of nature and therefore (since we don’t use the brains we were given) continually falling into the same pattern over and over and over again.

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        [Quote]Without fossil fuels would those societies you mention have been able to last in perpetuity or would they have crashed ala Sumeria, Rome, Mayans, etc. etc.[Endquote]

        It’s true no society lasts forever, but the societies I mentioned lasted several thousand years, as I said. Without using fossil fuels. It was mainly foreign aggressors that brought them to an end, not their own overconsumption of their resources. Ancient Egypt had the misfortune of having to endure the attacks of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims; if not for them, the use of hieroglyphics and the worship of Isis and Osiris could well have lasted a whole lot longer.

        They didn’t do too badly either; without fossil fuels, they still generated enough surplus energy for some of their members to have the leisure to come up with great works of art. As recently as the 18th century AD China produced one of her greatest novels, A Dream of Red Mansions.

        • colinc says:

          I’m curious, just how many of those “successful” civilizations held a substantial portion of their population as slaves who were abused incessantly and lived in abject squalor for the glorification and excesses of their “elites?” Is this a set of living arrangements that you find acceptable? Are there any similarities to events taking place today?

          • Tom Lewis says:

            So let me get this straight: unless the behavior of a civilization that flourished for a thousand years was impeccable in every conceivable way, we should pay no attention to it and learn no lessons from it? And if we find a lesson in what they did, and wish to act on it, we must also do everything else they did, as in reinstate slavery? Please.

            For the record, the civilization that I admire, the Native American, flourished for ten thousand years. Without slavery.

          • SomeoneInAsia says:

            To colinc:

            Not sure about Egypt, but in China’s case there has actually been very little slavery, if we understand ‘slave’ to mean a human being who can be bought and sold like a commodity. Sinologists like Joseph Needham and Derk Bodde said as much, as well as contemporary scholar on slavery Junius P. Rodriguez. I can cite the sources for you if you wish.

          • colinc says:

            First, Mr. Lewis, my questions, out of pure curiosity with nothing implied, were directed to SomeoneInAsia but I will respond to your interjection. I would like to know what, in my earlier questions, you “read” that even remotely implies that I “require” any given civilization to be “impeccable in every conceivable way” or that it should be summarily disregarded if it is not? Furthermore, are you suggesting that those earlier civilizations would have “flourished” without subjecting a significant number of their populace to abject slavery? Perhaps more pointedly, are you suggesting that you are willing to enslave some number of persons so that you can continue to live a “good life?”

            With regard to “Native Americans,” were they not primarily “organized” in a hunter-gatherer existence? Are you absolutely certain none of those tribes, over 10 millennia, EVER had ANY “slaves?” For how many people in how many places on this rock do see that lifestyle being “workable,” let alone “sustainable?”

          • colinc says:

            To SomeoneInAsia:

            Thank you for the response and citations are not necessary. I was asking purely out of curiosity since my “education” clearly affirmed that the Egyptian, Roman, Greek and Persian societies “employed” rather substantial slave populations and, without them, I don’t see how their existence or duration would not have fared differently. Of course, I could be wrong. ;)

          • SomeoneInAsia says:

            To colinc:

            You’re welcome (regarding your response to what I said earlier on slavery).

            I believe Mr Lewis was basically saying that, even though a society that lasted for extended periods of time might have had various problems about it e.g. slavery, the very fact that it lasted for extended periods of time would already indicate something positive about the way it draws upon its resource base, something we can learn from (unless you want to say that the way it drew upon its resource base inevitably entailed those problems — which I seriously doubt). A society can have both good and bad things about it; learn the good things and reject the bad. It does not have to be 100% good things and 0% bad things (which is impossible anyway) before you can learn something from it.

            This particular article seems to be breaking the record for the number of responses, by the way. :)

          • colinc says:

            SomoneInAsia, thank you once again for the response. I did understand the point that Mr. Lewis, and now you, have made regarding the probability of “something to learn” from those former societies. Nonetheless, I have my doubts whether they would have been as enduring or as prosperous if they had not made use of significant numbers of slaves. Of course, it is within the realm of possibility that their success could have been achievable with a more egalitarian structure but one would be hard-pressed to affirm that with any degree of certainty. Furthermore, I would posit that the iconic structures of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt could be construed as judicious, or even prudent, uses of their resources. Which reminds me, wasn’t the construction of The Great Wall across China accomplished with some degree of forced labor, aka slavery? Alas, it’s unfortunate that anthropology, archeology and paleo-[anything] are constrained by very limited numbers of clues which are always subject to interpretation and those conducting the investigations seem to have at least a few variations in their conclusions. That’s some of the reason I prefer physics and mathematics. :)

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          To colinc:

          The construction of the Great Wall took place only over a couple decades. Things like these were the rule-proving exceptions. In China as a general rule slavery was still largely absent otherwise. The Confucian intelligentsia frowned upon the unnecessary abuse of human labor, too.

          Just thought I’d let you know.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Amen. And another thing that “eases the conscience of certain people” is the oft-repeated bromide that “human nature” is such that people will always act badly. The corollary seems to be: act badly first, and get rich.

      • colinc says:

        A “better”(?!) corollary to note is that the greater the delta-T (for Temperature) between a hot source and a cold sink, the greater the rate of thermal energy transfer from source to sink. Not to “pile on” but, I’m curious where, exactly, do you see the potential for indefinitely sustainable permaculture endeavors to be situated? (I know you do not use the words indefinitely sustainable, but if it’s not that, then what’s the point?) Will it be possible to productively relocate those endeavors as the weather patterns continually change seeking the next climatic “equilibrium?” How long do see that process enduring?

        • Tom Lewis says:

          If it is incumbent upon me, before embarking on a course of action, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is infinitely sustainable, then by your own standard it is incumbent upon you, if you want to dissuade me from that course of action, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it has no chance of success, ever, anywhere. You first.

          Okay, me first. The Appalachian forests are among the world’s most resilient ecosystems, and on no threat map of any impact of global climate change that I have seen do they appear as seriously threatened. In the mid-latitudes of the temperate zone, they can expect extreme weather variations, but not devastating drought or destructive heat waves. If pollution ceases, if destruction stops soon, they have a chance to be survivable. Can you prove otherwise?

          • colinc says:

            I find it interesting that by my merely asking a few questions, you take umbrage and become “defensive.” First, I am not trying to “dissuade” you from anything. Your beliefs are no more or less relevant or worthy than those of anyone else. I’m well past trying to “convince” anyone of anything as I’ve found it to be always and exclusively an exercise in futility. However, now you have me curious about how, when and why you see pollution and destruction stopping “soon” or at any time in the “foreseeable” future?

  7. Tom says:

    If i may interject, reaching for a refill of this splendid beverage,

    Mr. Lewis: just go ahead and begin the process. Find a group of like-minded nearby neighbors to help (it creates community) if you wish. Enjoy the fruits of AND your labor: listen to the air, birds and bugs; feel the cool earth, soil that’s alive and get to know the smells of the seasons. To me it’s the best exercise. It’ll keep you busy, help you sleep and be more relaxed too (assuming it has the same effect on you that gardening has had on me).

    It doesn’t have to last forever – it only has to last as long as you feel like doing it, or rather as long as you CAN, at this point.

    The way things are going, you should go ahead and get started now – since it takes a fair amount of planning, deciding what you want, gathering materials, finding a spot, etc.

    Good luck!

    colinc: how have you been? Enjoyed the holidays i trust? i went to CA to help my youngest and his pregnant wife [what can i say?] pack for an up-coming job-change move. Positive and happy for two weeks amid the desolation that they don’t even see (so many dead trees, everything is “washing out” color-wise); i saw too many monarch butterflies to count – but someone estimated their number at 28,000 – so lovely and fading into oblivion (a sign on a tree showed the diminishing graph of their numbers over the past 50 years along with the count and other info).

    i appreciate your viewpoint (there’s no way back to Eden) and you know that i think all we’re doing now is witnessing the end, doing what we can until we can’t.

    Mr. Lewis probably doesn’t feel this way, as it takes time to sink in – to not be in despair (because we all die anyway and no one knows when) as things deteriorate; nonetheless, he should enjoy his life regardless of the brevity, no? Take chances, try out ideas, do what you still can. To me, it’s all meaningless anyway.

    Glad you’re all still around.

    • colinc says:

      I am doing “better”(?!) now that theGrand Hypocrisy Season has, once again, “passed,” until the next time and thank you for asking! :) I take it you, too, have survived and fared well which is also good.

      I am adamantly in favor of and support the sensibility and sage advice you propose in your opening paragraph. I wholeheartedly think that is the best prescription for us all… do what you love until you can’t while attempting to cause NO suffering to ANY “other.” (Of course, that is usually easier said than done.) As I’ve indicated earlier, I no longer attempt to “dissuade” or “persuade” anyone about anything. It would be a less fallacious endeavor trying to coax turnips to grow teeth! :o We are all in and delving deeper into “interesting times.”

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I do not know whether to attribute the condescension in this comment to you or your splendid beverage, but for the record: I went ahead and “got started” on these matters about two decades ago. Also, this is not Facebook, please move the personal chats to another channel.

  8. witsendnj says:

    The Native American tribes most certainly did have slaves, not only the well-known Mayan, Aztec and Inca, but the North American and Eskimo tribes as well. They also were proud warrior societies, practiced torture, and had many collapsed civilizations over time. The white-guilt romantic version of the peaceful, egalitarian Indian is a pernicious myth. They were no more, and no less, human than every other place on earth. Look up the Mound cities that expanded and then disappeared by 1300, centered around the Mississippi River, with extensive trade routes to the Atlantic – even the indigenous people the Europeans encountered had forgotten their existence but archaeology has since unearthed many artifacts. Around the cities was extensive agriculture and although no one knows what caused the collapse it is thought that extensive deforestation led to soil erosion, flooding – and they had problems getting rid of their waste so possibly, disease, and malnourishment as they relied mainly on corn for food.

    Point is, every time somebody says, such and such group lived sustainably for a thousand years, a little research disproves it. DISPROVES IT. Eskimos, Plains Indians, Eastern Woodland Indians, West Coast, Southwest – all fought wars amongst each other, and were in cycles of growth, overshoot and collapse.

    Any group in order to have a class that is engaged in something other than directly feeding themselves has to exploit energy from some source. Until the last couple of centuries it was slaves or serfs. How anybody can assert that Egypt or China, of all places, didn’t rely on slave labor is so astonishingly ignorant, it is about as credible as Holocaust denial. Leaving aside the more general concept of how slavery is defined, until the vast wealth of energy embedded in fossil fuels started to be exploited, 50% of every society was essentially enslaved, that being female.


    • Tom Lewis says:

      Yeah, I figured I would get dinged for that off-the-hip comment about no slavery among Native Americans. Sometimes, there was. However, if you read my books For King and Country and West From Shenandoah you will learn that I do not hold and never have held the “white-guilt romantic version of the peaceful, egalitarian Indian.” In fact, in West From Shenandoah you will find a rare account of the Beaver Wars in which the creators of the so-called Tree of Peace, the Iroquois Confederacy, attacked, subdued and relocated the peoples living in the northeastern quadrant of North America in a reign of terror not often equaled until the Nazis.

      Also, I did not say anyone lived sustainably for a thousand years, and is thus a model for us to use going forward. What I said was the Native Americans, having on mind those of North America, persisted for ten thousand years, a record we civilized people have little hope of reaching. My suggestion is not that they did everything right, but simply that it is possible for people without cars and cell phones to flourish.

      That said, may I ask ColinC and you, what the hell does any of this have to do with Permaculture? Am I wrong to hold out hope for the contribution it could make to our future because the Mayans practiced human sacrifice? Or because the Chinese bound womens’ feet? I’m afraid I don’t follow.

      • witsendnj says:

        Tom, I wasn’t responding directly to you alone in my previous comment, which is why I didn’t post it as a “reply”.

        There are two issues – one, that humans are predisposed to exploit sources of energy be they human or animal, or trees or coal or oil to burn. We have always done this; we have been doing it ever since we discovered fire. We use the energy to grow our numbers until we hit limits, whether resources or the amount of our waste the ecosystem can absorb or both. Permaculture doesn’t change that. So while it’s a fine practice if you enjoy it, it won’t enable humans to survive in the long run, because of the aforementioned propensity to expand until we can’t. Also, the claim that any cultures persisted sustainably for a thousand years is simply inaccurate because they became embroiled in wars of conquest. War, and the famine and disease it encourages, keeps numbers in check, and it is a symptom of strained resources.

        This was true also for the hunter-gatherers who lived simply – I really, really recommend you read the link about the megafauna. It is extremely well-written, and until you digest the scope of transformation – not just to the dozens of species we ate to extinction everywhere we migrated to, but of the degradation of entire ecosystems due to ripple effects – it is hard to appreciate just how destructive our plague species is and always has been, even with rudimentary tools.

        Most profoundly, permaculture is not going to improve prospects for survival any more than playing the violin on the deck of the Titanic – because the climate is already in an irreversible runaway trajectory. I’ll post a lecture by a scientist who has been warning about this outcome for decades. Even though he claims there is a way to avert catastrophe (everyone has to believe in something, apparently) – his prescription (planting trees & biochar sequestration) isn’t going to happen, because humans don’t work that way neurologically. We’re just not going to do what he says we need to do. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTMiii-BRtU&list=UUyhQvTItE7QkMCC-QnlwbRA&index=33

        and there are a couple of other worthwhile videos here about tipping points in the climate…http://climatecrocks.com/2015/01/22/the-fuse-is-blown-glaciologists-jaw-dropping-account-of-a-shattering-moment/

        There is no safe place. When extreme weather, if not sea level rise, leads to food shortages, society will break down, the grid will collapse, the people in the cities will be without food, water, and heat, and they will swarm by the billions looking for sustenance and shelter. Consider that humans left Africa and colonized every corner of the earth no matter how inhospitable without benefit of engines.

      • colinc says:

        …what the hell does any of this have to do with Permaculture?

        From Wiktionary (not the definitive source, but adequate) and NO implications intended…


        1. Any system of sustainable agriculture that renews natural resources and enriches local ecosystems.
        2. The design, installation and maintenance of indefinitely sustainable human communities set in balanced ecologies, both urban and rural.

        Okay, maybe just a little implication. :)

        While Gail’s comments were salient and sagacious my take is slightly more contemporary (futuristic?). First, Mr. Lewis, you mention in your comment time-stamped January 21, 2015 at 6:26 pm…

        …Appalachian forests are among the world’s most resilient ecosystems…

        I’ll NOT argue that that may well be true in a historical perspective but is hardly a guarantee that it will remain so. In regard to the latter, there are at least a few DOZEN nuclear power plants, arrayed from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, that at some point in the none-too-distant future WILL melt down and be utterly UN-contained, as Chernobyl and Fukushima sorta’ are. I do not see how the fallout from those events will contribute to the sustainability of any part of the “Appalachian forests,” or anywhere east of the Mississippi River Basin all the way to the eastern seaboard. Obviously, this does not preclude effects from discontinuities at innumerable biological and chemical manufacturing and testing (and weaponizing?) facilities across the country. I presume that you remember the Bhopal incident.

        Second, as global AVERAGE temperatures increase, MOST forecasts indicate that INLAND temperatures will rise well beyond that average. Moreover, there have been more than a few studies indicating that, at the very least, a number of crops will not be sustainable with the anticipated level of heat-stress. I’m sure you’re well aware that “man does not live by bread alone”… or any other singular crop.

        In closing, as Gail alluded, how much time and effort will you or anyone else be able to exert toward permaculture when some part of your time will be required to fend off the raids and frontal assaults perpetrated by starving hordes?

        Nonetheless, I am NOT trying to dissuade you or anyone else from attempting ANY endeavor that fills you(/them) with hope or optimism. However, at the same time, I still think permaculture or any other grand scheme are exercises in futility. Perhaps, you’ll be able to hang on for an extra decade or two, but the end result will be the same. Of course, the preceding is ALL based on the presumption that thermonuclear war is averted throughout the foreseeable future. I recall reading somewhere (apologies for no link) that even a limited exchange, roughly 100 warheads, between Pakistan and India decimates the ozone layer around the entire planet from roughly 30 degrees N latitude to 30 S which would result in at least a quadrupling of both UV-A and UV-B at the Earth’s surface. So, with ANY incidence of thermonuclear exchange, good luck growing anything, anywhere within those latitudes. When queues for groceries in the USA, Europe and Russia, among many other places, get to the current state in Venezuela, the nuclear option WILL be on EVERYONE’S agenda. NOW IS the best of times, the worst of times and will certainly become MORE interesting going forward.

      • colinc says:

        PS. I deeply and sincerely appreciate you allowing, contributing and stimulating the exchange that has taken (is taking) place on this post and on your site, in general. It is admirable beyond words and I do thank you for your reportage as well as your patience. I wish you and yours all the best.

  9. Zoidion says:

    I just wandered into this site yesterday–via a comment on The Archdruid Report blog (highly recommended, by the way). Since I attempt to track milestones in the crash and produce a blog on “weather, climate and the long emergency,” I expect I’ll find your chronicles most useful. Thank you, Mr. Lewis.
    Since I too consider permaculture to be a very positive practice that “collapse aware” people can do on their own, I’m gratified to find this particular post. Again, well done.

  10. LynnC says:

    Great post – glad to hear that you’ve discovered permaculture! However, from the comments, I must admit that I’m getting rather tired of supposed “greens” who can be counted on without fail to assert that ANY possible step to ameliorate climate disruption or increase personal resilience is doomed to failure and/or will make the problem even worse and/or is completely pointless or useless because we’re all doomed (if not DOOMED!!!!!!) by the coming Yellowstone caldera eruption/bird flu pandemic/meteor impact/return of Cthulhu/nuclear meltdown/insert disaster of choice. They ain’t happened yet, and if if they don’t happen we’d each better have a plan (sitting around waiting for extermination via exotic cataclysm is not a plan). Cheers and keep up the great work!

  11. Tom says:

    Geez, why so “touchy” Mr. Lewis: i wasn’t being “condescending” – just tryin’ to encourage you. i don’t do Facebook, and think you’re over-reacting to a simple well-wishing of another poster. Is this some kind of rule i missed?

    Whatever, it’s your blog.

    Keep up the good work!
    (try not to misinterpret that into something negative)