Beyond Permaculture Ethics: Review of Permaculture Magazine’s Film Series, “Living with the Land”

Immigrants working in an industrial strawberry field near Oxnard, California. Photograph by Linda Quiquivix

Each year in Spring, our city hosts the California Strawberry Festival, the largest in the United States. The labor-intensive crop is a hallmark of Oxnard, a place whose absence of frost has, over the last century, condemned its soil to industrial agriculture. Most of us here hail from generations of immigrant fieldworkers who now call Oxnard’s urban centers home. Outsiders, mostly passing through on their way to and from Los Angeles, know it as the part of the drive that exhales the scent of fertilizer.

The scenery here is a common one for drivers along Central California’s freeways: identical straight rows, slicing into the dark soil; hunched-over brown bodies, peppering the scarred landscape. A destination place for only a few, for most, their passing gaze may elicit an odd mixture of gratitude, guilt, admiration, and pity.

But for those who visit with a purpose in Spring, their story of agriculture becomes transformed, if only for a weekend. Once safely inside the Festival’s gates, the group of locals protesting the strawberry fields’ working conditions will remain quarantined outside. A steep admission fee will police where, and for whom, the fertilizer aromas will end and the strawberry ones begin.

For the rest of the year, however, a generalized anxiety around food will persist in inescapable ways, appearing in local, national, and global debates about health, the environment, the economy, and immigration. In the United States, the question of food is currently framed around the latter, where an increasingly anti-immigrant discourse is often challenged by a left which, while expressing solidarity with immigrant labor, remains uncritical of conventional methods of food production.

High-maintenance monoculture crops and their fertilizers, pesticide, and fossil fuel inputs have become so normal, it is now difficult to imagine a system of food growing that could be otherwise: one that is self-watering, self-fertilizing, requiring very little cultivation, yet still bearing plenty. For most, such an idea would not only be difficult to imagine, but also difficult to believe.

The film series “Living with the Land” (2015), might be the intervention we need into our imagination. Available online for free viewing and downloading, the films were produced by Permaculture People for Permaculture Magazine, a UK publication. The short films, ranging from about three to seven minutes each, share how various permaculture projects are unfolding across Britain to tackle questions of food and living in ways that follow the permaculture ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

Permaculture, a term coined in the 1960s and 1970s, was originally a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” signaling a focus on sustainable agricultural practices. It is a method of design that follows nature’s lead rather than work against and in spite of it. We get a powerful example of this the series’ first film, “Forest Gardening,” where we learn how trees, shrubs, and perennial plants can be designed to work together in this way to even self-water and self-fertilize. Human involvement still exists, but with a “light touch.” Standing in sharp contrast to the practice of growing a single crop along a multitude of rows, these less invasive practices mean that fossil fuels are minimized, hazardous synthetic inputs become less necessary, and further deterioration of the environment is abated. So rather than taking an isolated view of plants that assumes that they are inherently in conflict and must be controlled and manipulated against nature, the practice takes a systems view of life with attention to how living organisms cooperate.

The film “Natural Building” shows how permaculture design can be applied beyond agriculture and toward construction projects. It highlights how cement emits significant amounts of CO2 and suggests alternatives that can be found in already existing natural building materials and technologies. These include cob, adobe, rammed earth (unburnt clay), and straw bale (which boasts an insulation factor rivaling modern synthetics). The film inspires with examples of stunning architectural possibilities. Viewers still skeptical about their strength, function, and durability, are left to sit with the fact that the Great Wall of China was itself constructed of rammed earth.

In “No Dig Gardening,” we learn of the benefits of leaving the ground untilled each planting season. “Farming with Nature” shows how soil can be built through livestock grazing, while “Animal-Free Farming” provides an alternative way of building soil through crop rotation, without the need for manure or animal byproducts. And in “Transformation through Learning,” we are invited into a sustainable rural homestead that serves as a demonstration site for permaculture immersion learning.

The film “Urban Permaculture” takes the practice and education away from the country and into the city, which many viewers will find more relevant to their lives. The film centers around the concept of the “Permablitz,” which it describes as a gathering of people in a day to “transform forgotten backyards into edible and vibrant green spaces, as well as to emphasize the importance of human relationships.” The practice is both collective and reciprocal: once a volunteer has worked to transform a few backyards, that volunteer can ask to have one done at their place. Here, the film series touches on an important example of how permaculture design has applications far beyond agriculture and into larger ideas of how we might relate to each other differently in the broader web of life.

Unfortunately, the urban context is considered only once in the series, and in the shortest of the nine films. Indeed, tackling critical questions of the broader political contexts that make permaculture practice possible for some more than for others is a theme left untreated in the series as a whole. For us, it reaches its limits here, for the phenomenon of immigration itself cannot be critically engaged with this gap.

With the majority of the world’s people now having emigrated into cities, having had their communal land holdings destroyed and equitable access to resources everyday curtailed, long-term questions of land and resources, along with short-term permaculture strategies for the urban contexts the dispossessed today find themselves in, seem at least equally urgent as those that take place on acres of private land in the country.

But like most discussions on permaculture at the moment, “Living with the Land” focuses on permaculture ethics without critically engaging with the politics that determine the land access of “Earth Care;” who is considered sufficiently human to receive membership in “People Care;” and who or what should be included in the apportioning of “Fair Share.”

The lack of a critical view on the structural privilege of land ownership and resource access is perhaps most striking in two of the series’ films. In “Off-Grid Living,” we follow a woman who describes herself as having had “a very privileged and very average Western life,” before deciding to leave it all to live on a five-acre small holding. There, she is able to de-link from systemic dependence in significant ways by growing the food that she consumes, running a profitable farm, and having ready access to clear water springs, ponds, and rivers—material conditions breathtakingly inaccessible to a growing number of people worldwide.

The film “21st Century Foraging” promotes going on free walks in nature to pick wild food, while emphasizing the importance of knowing what is edible in the wild, and the long process it takes to accumulate these skills. While these used to be knowledges traditionally passed down from generation to generation through practice, for many of us, our alienation from land today has broken this inheritance. The film speaks of “an equality of opportunity to forage” which in reality is not an equality available to many. People of color in Western contexts, for example, do not have the privilege to walk about freely and forage without risking confrontation with police, security, or vigilante forces. While the film is not wrong when it says that, to forage, “You don’t have to have a degree, you don’t have to be an ethnobotanist, you just be fully human,” what it misses is that Western, liberal societies employ a definition of the human that excludes most.

With critiques like these in mind, watching the films in “Living with the Land” from a place like Oxnard can be helpful for those among us who would like to confront the contradictions between food and our relationship to nature and each other—together with an ethical-political inquiry on land and resource access. For people of color in particular, permaculture study can also intervene as a critical psychological reassessment of the more sustainable food growing and foraging practices of our grandparents, which we have long been taught to be ashamed of. Above all, permaculture itself, at once philosophy and practice, can be part of a broader set of tools that allow us to construct our autonomy in a most intimately material sense. For many, this film series might be a good starting point on that journey.

—Oxnard, California, USA