A couple of years ago I gave a presentation to a hall full of Master Gardeners on my favorite topic: saving energy in our landscapes. I pointed out that if we gardened with more native plants, this would support regional pollinators, thereby potentially reducing the energy costs associated with replacing a vital ecological service. Compared to some of the talk’s other suggestions, this was a relatively minor point, but I felt it was vital to include…to my regret, as it turned out.
Here’s why. The first question at the end of my talk was a belligerent shout from the back of the hall: “If we garden with native plants, how would you suggest we get enough Vitamin C in our diets, assuming we choose not to import oranges from thousands of miles away? What’s your answer to that?”
Um. First of all, I never said anything about growing only native plants, nor anything about food. And second, why are you so angry? I don’t exactly remember how I responded, but this guy’s quarrelsome attitude cast a pall over all further discussion.
This was my first encounter with the rude tone that many permaculturists feel entitled to use when speaking to others whom they seem to perceive as either misguided, idiotic or some sort of threat. It was not to be my last.
A few months ago, I publicly questioned the widespread permaculture practice of growing non-native perennial plants that are known to be disruptive to nearby natural ecosystems. Here’s what I wrote:
“Like all the worst systems of agriculture and horticulture in our past, this new approach still places human wishes and desires (often called “needs”) in the center of the equation.”
Vitriolic response to this statement came very quickly from an offended permaculture advocate. I’m quite sure he didn’t mean to accidentally prove my point when he started his broadside with this:
“Actually, permaculture does the opposite of most agriculture systems as it facilitates the development of diverse, highly complex, and resilient ecosystems in which human needs (italics mine) such as food, water, and shelter are provided for locally.”
Hmm…isn’t that what I said? As far as agriculture goes, the “local” part may be unique to this new kind of farming, but the self-granted permission to meet human needs without being hampered by concern about unlikely negative consequences (and they’re always presented as unlikely), well, that sounds sadly familiar. Think Monsanto, Dow Chemical, GM crops, etc.
I would like to be clear here, right at the start, that I believe there is a lot in permaculture’s system of beliefs that makes good sense. I have no gripe with the movement’s worthy ideals and hard-working advocates; in fact, I admire them. I also recognize that many permaculturists do take great care to avoid invasive plants. It is the arguments of those fiercely defensive spokespeople, many who claim to speak for the movement as a whole, that concern me here.
My point is this: Considering that the first stated ethic of permaculture is “Care for the Earth,” how can practitioners ignore the notion of non-native plants causing harm, and promote the growing of several non-native plants species already known to be invasive?
Since writing my original statement, I’ve learned that this is not a new issue in the permaculture world. I don’t know when it first arose, but clearly there’s a problem here that has not yet been resolved.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the claims made in defense of this practice that seems to contradict one of the movement’s founding edicts. I do not include here every argument that permaculturists make, and I will not air the most absurd and insulting ones; my goal is to highlight a few main issues.
Claim: Invasive species don’t harm natural ecosystems.
This blanket denial says that harm from invasive species is not real because the term “invasive species” is overly-emotional and impossible to define, and besides, there’s no such thing as natural ecosystems left to be harmed because humans have always altered nature. Permaculturist Eric Toensmeier writes in “The New American Landscape” that we should call the impact of invasive species not “harm,” but rather “change.” The evidence most often given for this outlook comes from the book “Invasion Biology,” by biologist Mark Davis.
Mr. Davis writes: “It is time the field [of conservation biology] puts to rest once and for all any and all general claims that introduced invasive species represent the second greatest global extinction threat to imperiled native species, and instead focuses on the many other sorts of effects that non-native species are having, including impacts on biodiversity that do not involve actual extinctions (italics mine, P. 274).
Hey. How about that. According to this oft-quoted expert, not only do invasive species exist, they also affect biodiversity. So, those who justify permaculture’s use of invasive plants by quoting this book are selectively believing only the data that serves their own interest. (Or maybe they just forgot to read the second half of that sentence?) This does not make their claims true.
As another commenter has pointed out, Mark Davis also states: “We are not suggesting that conservationists abandon their efforts to mitigate serious problems caused by some introduced species.” Hm…I haven’t yet read all of “Invasion Biology,” but I wonder what else in this book negates permaculturists’ assertions.
Also, to clarify: extinction is not the problem that native plant proponents are trying to prevent. The goal of native plant advocacy is to protect diverse ecosystems and sustain healthy natural food webs.
Claim: New scientific conclusions support permaculture.
Conservation biology and the study of invasive species is a science in flux. An avid permaculturist recently wrote in a tirade against what he called the “bunk” of native plant proponents, saying: “Look out. Science works over long time periods to dissolve poor ideas and scientific/cultural misconceptions.”
Yes, it is well-known that scientific understanding evolves. We are learning that some of the most disruptive plants currently turning once-diverse ecosystems into monocultures were introduced 50 or even 100 years before they started to spread explosively. How can permaculturists be sure that the new data they use to justify their actions this year will still be true next year, or in 50 years? Given that the science of invasion biology is clearly in flux, wouldn’t it make sense to be more careful in how we treat our precious planet, rather than less?
Claim: We’re already living with invasive plants just fine.
I recently talked with a permaculture advocate whom I like and respect. To my question about the widespread use of hardy kiwi as a food crop, he calmly explained that, from a permaculture perspective, this vine is sort of the equivalent of Oriental bittersweet, and if it escaped it would occupy the same general niche. So, he said, since we’re already living with bittersweet, this would be no worse.
Well, as much as I respect him, this logic eludes me. Do permaculturists believe that because humans have already made a mess of things, and the planet’s not dead yet, we should all feel free to keep on making the same kinds of mistakes? Wouldn’t it make more sense, when seeing the shocking explosion of invasive species everywhere, to think: wow, even though it’s clear we can’t get rid of all these problems, we should really try not to cause any more problems? Isn’t it true that the whole notion of permaculture came into being based on observations that conventional agriculture has always ruined land wherever it has gone? This practice seems no different.
Ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948:
“One of humanity’s greatest challenges is to live on land without spoiling it.”
Permaculturists claim that their “whole systems” approach to growing food is necessary to save the world from the post-peak oil crisis ahead. This self-granted imperative, however, does not entitle them to accidentally trash the world. Later saying “Oops, we got that part wrong…sorry…” is not acceptable. So, I would like to pose two questions to permaculture proponents everywhere:
First: Even if the chances seem (to you) slim that potentially disruptive species will escape your gardens and cause harm, even if you want us to believe that nature will be just fine! don’t worry so much!… wouldn’t it make sense to have as your starting point an attitude of caution?
And second: Since you base your belief system on observations about the countless unwitting and short-sighted errors made by agriculturists everywhere throughout history, why won’t you consider the long-term consequences of your own actions and advice, and take into account the actual whole system of nature, not just the (supposedly) closed systems that you design and manage and promote as the solution to the world’s problems?
Permaculture is a marvelously complex set of beliefs, with much to offer. However, its practice of ignoring the potential impact of non-native species on surrounding natural areas seems to be in direct violation of the movement’s simultaneously most basic and most lofty goal – to care for the planet.
Does such an internal contradiction undermine the movement’s effectiveness? Does it keep permaculture from being taken seriously? To me, the answer is clearly yes. Perhaps others see it differently. But it is a paradox that deserves careful, honest evaluation, not dismissive insults and self-serving distortions of reality.
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