As the world debates climate change, chances of a legally binding agreement seem distant. Yet, around the world, a new way of life that’s gentler on the planet is trending, making low carbon living accessible.
Hundreds of world leaders are in Peru for the last week trying to mop up their share of the carbon in the atmosphere or prevent another country from doing so. Having covered at least three UN conventions on climate change as a journalist, I now find I could potentially write the story without being there. Reporters from the developing world will write about how their leaders fobbed off attempts by the rich countries to prevent their right to develop. The developed world will paint India and China as devils, the countries that are selfishly emitting carbon at the cost of the planet. What is forgotten in this power play between the rich and the poor nations is that we are hurtling towards a two-degree rise in global temperatures that will impact each one of us. A climate change summit leaves me feeling powerless and frustrated.
That’s why a new movement that’s sweeping the planet, known as permaculture, comes across as a breath of fresh air. It teaches you how to be green, as you are where you are and with your own devices. The concept was developed in the late 1970s when two Australians—Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren—wanted to change the world around them. Mollison was, in fact, inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan who had pioneered the one-straw revolution or the concept of natural farming. Mollison and Holmgren took it a step forward and came up with permaculture—a coming together of permanent agriculture and permanent culture.
To dejargonize it, permaculture is a system for designing sustainable human settlements by restoring soil, planting year-round food, conserving water, redirecting the waste stream and turning the earth’s looming resource crisis into an age of opportunity and happiness. Perhaps its most practical application is in coming up with a clever design for homes, properties and even cities based on these principles.
Permaculture is spreading. People are coming together, cooperating with each other and nature to repair the damage we’ve done to the planet. Unlike organic gardening, permaculture thrives on creating food forests, a do-it-yourself kitchen herbal setup, rooftop gardens and compost heated showers. You can find permaculturists setting up worm trays and bee boxes on the rooftops of cities like New York, aquaponics ponds and chicken roosts in rural France, composting toilets and rain barrels, solar panels and earth houses across Australia and Jordan. With permaculture training institutes cropping up worldwide, it is now estimated that 100,000 to 150,000 students have completed the certificate course since the philosophy was developed in Tasmania over three decades ago.
Attending a permaculture course may feel like a back to nature boot camp, but there’s plenty to learn irrespective of whether you own a piece of land or not. I attended one in rural Thailand. The classes were packed with theory, followed by stepping out in the sun, getting our hands dirty and doing practical work on a 10-acre permaculture farm. To nourish us through the day, we picked fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden, all grown without a trace of chemicals, sipped herbal tea and wolfed down Thai noodle soup laced with crispy salad leaves. I learnt how to stomp my feet in a mud pit to make adobe bricks for natural buildings (we built an organic café for the local school and it was the high point of our course), a compost pile which was then attached to a water pipe to give us a compost heated shower, mulching to nourish the new garden patch. If the sun got too hot, we walked a short distance to the edge of the forest and took a dip in the ice cold lake.
Perhaps the best part of the permaculture course is the people. I worked every day with a group of 30 people from across the planet, one man was making his way back to Japan by land, a tour guide from Australia who lived in a bus, a teacher from England who wanted to green her garden the permaculture way and a government officer from Hong Kong who was looking to start a green movement from people’s balconies. Each person was there to learn how he or she could change the way we live today.
In India, permaculture as a concept is yet to pick up. Some pockets in Auroville and Darjeeling teach the course, but that’s it. And yet, much of the philosophy of permaculture is already in our traditional methods of farming from using cow dung to mud wash rural homes to inter-interspersing crops with nitrogen fixing crops like mustard. Permaculture doesn’t romanticize a back to roots living. It teaches you to live sustainably in your world the way it is today. If you are looking at ways to reduce your own carbon footprint, attend a permaculture course. You will have lots of fun for sure. And you may just end up saving the planet.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars.