Why Zero Waste Enthusists Should Think More about Permaculture

It is only probably the year or so that i’ve been thinking about my actions specifically in terms of zero waste. As i discussed previously this movement is fantastic, but it’s become very narrow. There isn’t a lot of diversity in the types of people presenting their view of zero waste and but also there is the issue that reducing waste views the environmental sustainability through only a single lens and leaves open the potential to make purely zero waste choices that intern have a negative impact to another areas of the environment (such as carbon emissions and climate change) if big picture thinking isn’t also incorporated.

While my participation in the zero waste movement is new, my involvement and practicing of Permaculture is more long-term. I’ve talked about how i’m developing a 20 acre property in Australia using permaculture principles to become self-sufficient and producers for our community before. But i realise that i haven’t exactly really discussed what permaculture even is! Permaculture is very compatible with zero waste philosophies in general and most permaculture practioners reduce waste as part of their lifestyle. But thinking about the two philosophies i realised that really Permaculture has over Zero Waste the big picture thinking that i’m always talking about and thus I think many people that might only know about zero waste but not permaculture could really benefit from learning more about it. Permaculture is also more inclusive (although ironically i’ve seen it mentioned there are not enough women in education roles which is clearly the complete opposite to zero waste which is almost entirely female) and because the focus is on designing your lifestyle and environment and problem solving in this regard it is much more flexible for adapting to different individual’s and communities ‘circumstances. If i have to compare the virtues of each movement, i’d have to say that permaculture as a more developed, adaptive, inclusive and critical thinking approach has far more potential to make greater positive changes to sustainability than zero waste on its own.

Different kinds of people though seem attracted to zero waste (or hear about it over the other) vs permaculture. Zero waste appeals to urban types and the clear directive of how to do things according to the much repeated ‘model’ of how to reduce waste and what kinds of reusables to own. On the other hand permaculture primarily becomes part of people’s lives via gardening and a desire to grow food at home. If there had to be a ‘stereotypical’ permaculture they’d be either an older very environmentally conscious individual who has been gardening for years and years and is incredibly knowledgeable about ecology and other natural sciences, or a younger person who would identify more with the kind of ‘hippy’ subculture rathe than the ‘hipster’ influences of the zero-waster. My husband doesn’t fit any of these moulds but came to permaculture with enthusiasm quite independent of myself though an interest in engineering and the scientific aspects of design. He is neither hippy or hipster and doesn’t always fit with the average permaculture crowd but will happily watch hours of permaculture youtube videos and obviously was so enamoured by the idea as to join me in our lifelong project of developing 20 acres using the approach. So the group of people involved do seem a bit more diverse, but obviously there is always room to improve for any movement.

While the majority of permaculturists are interested in growing some of their own food if possible (many people manage even in rentals or apartments or take part in community gardens), because it is a philosophy focused on the community scale, rather than the individual (like zero waste is), this really isn’t a requirement. Thus what i’m hoping with this post is to introduce the idea to people that might not have even heard of the concept or realised it could apply too to their urban lifestyles.

The ethics that underpin permaculture are:

  1. People Care (Community, health etc.)
  2. Earth Care (The environment)
  3. Fair Share

Within this ethical framework lifestyles and the habitat (home and garden, community etc) we create are designed so as to best serve these 3 ethics. Also a feature is looking to natural systems for inspiration in our design. For example diversity rather than monoculture is very important as it is what is present in a healthy ecosystem.

Now how could this apply to someone living in a city apartment say in NY who cannot or is unable to be involved in growing food?

  1. Permaculture lifestyle designs will generally favour buying local. This not only creates less stress on the environment caused by long transportation distances (earth care), but as far as food goes it will be more nutritious  as it is fresher (people care) and gives back and supports the local community with your dollar (fair share).
  2. Permaculture lifestyle designs place a great importance on being part of the community, though participation, helping out where you can but also having community structures there to support you too in times of need. Volunteering, joining community organisations or even just getting to know your neighbours and creating a social network and supports achieves this. One thing i’ve definitely noticed within permaculture communities is sharing excess. If someone has more of something than they really need they let everyone know it’s available if they want it. This means less waste! This community aspect is definitely something the zero waste movement, which is primarily individual focused should learn from and also makes achieving less waste more affordable and achievable for more people as it is then not just up to the individual but a community effort.
  3. Since earth care is the ethic then all sorts of practices would be implemented by someone living in their apartment in NY. This includes zero waste, but also bigger picture thinking so other more sustainable practices too. For example using more sustainable forms of transportation (eg bikes, walking or public transport), installing more energy efficient lightbulbs or solar, eating a more plant-based diet or investing in ethical mutual funds.

Ok that is just some examples and obviously like zero waste, you do what they can, and other aspects such as finances and life circumstances will also place limitations on what is possible. But as you can see it is definitely bigger picture, more community based thinking than just zero waste, yet incorporates a zero waste philosophy so far as it is beneficial to the wider goals.

I hope that if you are someone that has come to zero waste and are passionate about environmental sustainability you look further into the permaculture philosophy. Probably zero waste has a greater likelihood to go mainstream at least within the middle class of western societies than permaculture as it is very easily positioned within a consumer based practices and thus can be used and promoted by companies making zero waste things for people to buy.  Thus zero waste will always get more press than permaculture that doesn’t really ‘sell’ anything except maybe books and courses of which you need neither to learn and impliment. But as i’ve said previously i think bigger picture thinking is needed to make a significant impact on the environment overall (since we as humans really have screwed it up throughly and i forsee in the next few hundred years if nothing really changes a significant cultural disruption in line with what has happened to other historical cultures such as the Easter Islanders or the Mayans. See Jared Diamond’s book and TED talk Collapse for more info if you are interested in this).

Interested in learning more about permaculture? One of my favourite resources is Geoff Lawton. Yes he is going to talk more about garden design than anything but he makes just some very fabulous videos that have really inspired us.

For inspiration on living a permaculture lifestyle that looks beyond just gardening check out this blog. I’m sure there are many others out there too.





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