Philosophy and Permaculture in Context: Critical Partners En Route to Sustainability

(Note that the format of the study as it stands in early 2016 has deviated from what was proposed in 2014; the content, however, remains unchanged. See the contents page of the study by clicking the PhD tab to get an idea of the structural changes: in a nutshell, the proposed Chapter 1 had to be turned into two chapters, while the proposed Chapter 7 became incorporated into the new Chapter 6. Again, the content and exact focus of the study remains unchanged.)


In this study it is taken as axiomatic that there is an ecological crisis precipitated by dominant ideological discursive practices, specifically the discourses of technology, liberal democracy and Capitalism (hereafter TDC), which underpin ecologically damaging practices. Knowing this, it is imperative to adopt alternative, less harmful ways of thinking (philosophies, ideologies, narratives) about humans and their place in the world. Further, insofar as philosophy should become a ‘way of life’, it is imperative, by extension, to find alternative, more sustainable “ways of living” / practices. However, the dominant ideological discourses of TDC have not only precipitated the ecological crisis in the first place, but also marginalise the platform from which to investigate alternatives and largely work to block the lifestyle changes necessary for sustainable living. In light of this ecological problematic it is proposed that permaculture (permanent agriculture, plus the cultural dimensions of sustainability) involves a philosophy and a practice that could meet the imperative of adopting less harmful ways of thinking and correspondingly more sustainable ways of living. The ultimate aims of this research, therefore, are to justify permaculture as implying a sustainable theoretical platform from which consideration of alternative, more ecologically sensitive philosophies is possible; and to justify permaculture as a set of sustainable practices that adequately address the ecological crisis (precipitated by the dominant ideological discourses of TDC) in ways that are congruent with the implications of ‘alternative’ philosophies. To achieve these broad aims, the following research objectives may be outlined:

1. To justify the claim that there is an ecological crisis and explain its nature.
2. To show that the (industrial) practices that lead to crises stem from dominant ideological discourses of TDC that legitimate certain ecologically damaging practices and systematically undermine other more sustainable ideas and practices.
3. To show that these dominant ideological discourses block lifestyle change for most people.
4. To describe and explain ‘alternative’, counter-discourses or philosophical perspectives concerning humans and their place in the world.
5. To introduce and explain the idea of philosophy as a way of life.
6. To show that ‘alternative’, counter-discourses and philosophies that challenge the dominant TDC paradigm can manifest themselves as a sustainable way of life in the practice of permaculture.
7. To review (via a case-study) the practices of permaculture already in place.

Research Problem / Rationale

There is an ecological crisis. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), drawn up by 1300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, is an extensive exploration of the state of the planet. Here are some of their findings: 60% of world ecosystem services have been degraded; Of 24 evaluated ecosystems, 15 are being damaged; About 20% of corals were lost in just 20 years, and 20% degraded; Nutrient pollution has led to eutrophication of waters and coastal dead zones; Species extinction is now 100-1,000 times above the normal background rate.

As one writer has remarked, “The [Millennium Ecosystem Assessment] report says the way society obtains its resources has caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth.” This is with a world population of approximately seven billion people. The Living Planet (LP) report of 2013 concurs – the website that houses the report opens to the words, “[o]ur current consumption levels pose an unsustainable threat to the planet.” Furthermore, the LP report summary chart begins with a projection of human impact on the planet: by 2050, when the human population is predicted to reach 9 billion people, we will need 3 Earths to maintain current lifestyles. There is, however, only one Earth – the projection that we will need 3 in approximately 35 years unarguably constitutes a crisis for humanity, as well as for all life on the planet, because (to restate the glaringly obvious) we only have one Earth.

The ecological crisis has arisen in a very specific context. The subtitle of Joel Kovel’s book, ‘The Enemy of Nature’ (2007) is: ‘The end of Capitalism or the end of the world?’ This suggestive subtitle encapsulates the central idea of the book, that Capitalism is the “’greater force’ whose impulse drives the [ecological] crisis onwards” (2007: 4). This ‘greater force’ is, in the Marxist sense, the base upon which the superstructure of society is built: “Capital, money-in-action, becomes a kind of intoxicating god, and also… a ‘force field’ polarising our relation to nature in such a way that spells disaster. From being the creature of nature we have become capital’s puppet” (2007: 5).

Kovel’s analysis of capital, capital’s hold on civilisation, and the accompanying ecological degradation, shows that Capitalism has developed mechanisms of social control that perpetuate it, which thereby worsen ecological degradation. There is not enough space in this proposal to discuss details – these will be the focus of the first part of the proposed research study. What is important at this stage is the following: to say that Capitalism has in-built mechanisms of self-perpetuation is to say that capitalism prevents transition from an unsustainable dispensation to a sustainable one. This is an important concept because, via a review of (for example) Kovel’s work, one may arrive at an understanding of how Capitalism marginalises alternatives to its unsustainable practices. Understanding how it does so is necessary in order to consider and evaluate ‘alternative’ ways of thinking and living that could allow human beings to address the current ecological disaster.

Kovel does well to facilitate the aforementioned understanding of how Capitalism, at the expense of more sustainable alternatives, is perpetuated, but several other key figures shed important light on this subject. Due to space constraints I will name only the following thinkers and identify only the area of theory which I will use when exploring Capitalism’s mechanisms of control, which I will do ultimately in order to identify some of the underlying causal factors of the ecological crisis and its perpetuation at the exclusion of more sustainable alternatives: Foucault’s ‘panopticism’, Mill’s ‘tyranny of the majority’, Chomsky’s ‘manufacturing consent’; and Foster’s ‘ecological rift’.


In light of the above ecological problematic it is proposed that permaculture (permanent agriculture, plus the cultural dimensions of sustainability) involves a philosophy and a practice that could meet the imperative of adopting less harmful ways of thinking and more sustainable ways of living. Permaculture is a useful example of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ in the context of the planetary ecological crisis, and can be said to ‘speak’ for an interdisciplinary mixing-pot of alternative discourses, narratives, and philosophies in response to the ‘dominant’ discourses of Capitalism largely responsible for the onset and perpetuation of the crisis. Furthermore, permaculture is a tangible ecological ‘remedy’ compatible with the theoretical and practical ‘components’ of diverse discourses, narratives, and philosophies, offering a set of practical steps to be taken in order to arrive at a sustainable theoretical and practical paradigm that caters for a heterogeneous ‘mixing-pot’ of cultural narratives.

The above hypothesis draws attention to a possible interdisciplinary approach towards solutions for the problem(s) outlined in the research problem and rationale section above. First, ‘alternative’ counter-discourses or philosophical perspectives concerning humans and their place in the world are imperative as platforms from which to consider the ecological crisis. An excellent example of a counter-discourse is the Occupy movement of 2011/12. It’s slogan, ‘we are the 99%’, draws attention to the concentration of wealth among the 1% of the world’s most wealthy corporate Capitalist elites, who own 40% of the world’s ‘wealth.’ The movement is constituted by a plethora of political, environmental/ecological and social philosophies, the consideration of which will establish part of a ‘response’ to the situation established in the earlier parts (as outlined in the research problem and rationale section) of the study.

Having investigated the notion of counter-discourses, Pierre Hadot’s (1995) exploration of philosophy ‘as a way of life’ will be reviewed for its relevance to the structures of dominant TDC discourses, as well as to the counter-discourses mentioned above. This will be to see to what extent the discourses are philosophies as ways of life. In conducting such an inquiry, it will possible to establish how the ecological degradation associated with TDC can be directly linked to their underlying ideological constituents; the implication being that if sustainability is indeed to be achieved, then certain ideologies of TDC need to be altered or eradicated. Similarly, if it is possible to establish that the discourses are philosophies as ways of life, then the ecological sensitivity of ‘counter-discourses’ can likewise be directly linked to their underlying ideological constituents; the implication being that if sustainability is to be achieved, then certain counter-discursive ideas need to be widely adopted.

Having explored philosophy as a way of life, it may be possible to to show that alternative or counter-discourses and philosophies that challenge the dominant TDC paradigm can manifest as a sustainable way of life in the practice of permaculture. Consider the following by Bill Mollison on the opening page of his monumental Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual:

The world can no longer sustain the damage caused by modern agriculture, monocultural forestry, and thoughtless settlement design, and in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy, or the end of civilization as we know it, due to human-caused pollution and climate changes (1988: i).

This statement clearly is relevant to the focus areas identified in the research problem section of this proposal. Permaculture, however, quickly moves on from the problems associated with TDC and instead implements context-specific sustainable practices that are compatible with ‘counter-discursive’ ideas. As Mollison (1988: 9) says,

The end result of the adoption of permaculture strategies in any country or region will be to dramatically reduce the area of the agricultural environment needed by the households and the settlements of people, and to release much of the landscape for the sole use of wildlife and for re-occupation by endemic flora. Respect for all life forms is a basic, and in fact essential, ethic for all people.


The ultimate aims of this research are to justify permaculture as a sustainable theoretical platform from which consideration of alternative, more ecologically sensitive philosophies is possible; and to justify permaculture as a set of sustainable practices that adequately address the ecological crisis (precipitated by the dominant ideological discourses of Capitalism) in ways that are congruent with the implications of ‘alternative’ philosophies.

Research questions

Chapter 1: How can the ecological situation be described realistically?
Chapter 2: What is the relationship between the ecological crisis and the dominant discourses of TDC?
Chapter 3: To what extent have TDC blocked the ability to implement alternative, sustainable practices?
Chapter 4: How would a ‘counter-discourse’ come to have practical components in the same way that the discourses of TDC do?
Chapter 5: To what extent has it been possible to live according to the idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’? How does the ecological crisis change the ‘debate’ between theory and practice?
Chapter 6: What is the role of permaculture in an ostensibly philosophical discourse?
Chapter 7: Can a permaculture site be described in such a way as to encapsulate the wide range of philosophical issues associated with the ecological crisis?

Proposed Structure of the Study

Chapter 1 will be be largely descriptive in order to paint a realistic, up-to-date picture of the ecological crisis. Information will be gathered from a variety of different sources, examples being the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the WWF’s Living Planet Report of 2012, and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005. Theorists from the field of political Ecology, for example Joel Kovel (as discussed in the Rationale section) and Thomas Princen (2005 and 2010), will be consulted in order identify the primary physical systemic mechanisms of TDC, industries and practices responsible for the unstable ecological situation. For example, preliminary research has identified the petro-chemical industry as instrumental in this regard (Kovel 2006; Princen 2005; Hartmann 1998); it is one of the main systemic ‘hubs’ of TDC giving rise to numerous sub-systems responsible for immense ecological degradation. The details of this ‘parent industry’, as well as the relevant sub-systems, will be explored in order to understand causal factors involved in the ecological crisis.

Chapter 2 will change focus to the ideological constituents that underlie the above systemic mechanisms, industries and practices. Reformulated along similar lines, this chapter will identify what dominant cultural narratives have been formed that allow the above systems to continue pushing towards ecological disaster. Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (2006) is indispensable as a tool of analysis here. Topics such as anthropomorphism, dominion, Christianity, progress, competition versus cooperation, nature versus nurture, and democracy, may come to the forefront. Hadot’s environmentally-orientated book The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature (2006), where Hadot outlines humans’ increasingly mechanistic, technologized approach to ‘nature,’ is another example text to be used for the analysis in chapter 2. Other texts to be used in this Chapter’s analysis are Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (1947), and materialist ecofeminist works that make the undermining of dualisms a central concern, e.g. Ariel Salleh’s article ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Epistemology’ (1984). The respective work of theorists like White (1967) and Arendt (1958) will form the initial theoretical foundation from which to conduct this part of the study; as different narratives are identified, the work of relevant philosophers will be incorporated.

Chapter 3 will identify the reasons why the above ideological constituents and narratives continue to dominate despite their negative consequences in the context of the ecological crisis. In other words, what blocks social change? Examples of philosophical topics and associated theory to be be explored in this chapter are: Foucault’s ‘panopticism’ (1975); philosophical materialism; Mill’s ‘inherent dangers of democracy’ (2002); Deleuze’s ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’ (1992); Chomsky and Herman’s ‘manufacturing consent’ (2002); and Foster’s ‘ecological rift’ (2010).

Chapter 4 will conduct a philosophical review of a series of alternative narratives; ‘alternative’ in that they challenge, first, the main ideological constituents discussed in chapter 2, and second, they challenge the ‘behavioural constraints’ (i.e. that which prevents change) discussed in chapter 3. Examples are: the Occupy Movement (as elaborated upon in the hypothesis section above), deep ecology, animism, ecocritique, ecofeminism, gaia theory, bio-mimicry, the narratives of selected earth-focused cultures such as American Indians, Sheldrake’s biological theory of morphic resonance (1991), Hancock’s view that humankind is now a ‘civilization with amnesia’ (1995), and the ‘freeman-of-the-land movement’s distinction between ‘common’ and ‘commercial’ law. Note that the purpose of this Chapter is not to provide accounts of, for example, the tensions between the selected discourses, e.g. of the tensions between deep ecologists and ecofeminists, and between different kinds of ecofeminism; instead, attention simply will be drawn to the main relevant aspects of each chosen alternative narrative; in so doing, something of their compatibility will be highlighted, at least insofar as they challenge ‘dominant’ ideologies of TDC and the behavioural constraints associated with it; hence the admittedly eclectic sample of ‘alternative narratives’ above.

Chapter 5 will explore Hadot’s idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ by considering if (or how) the alternative narratives can be (or are) put into practice. The question of the relationship between theory and practice, as well as between ideology and philosophy, will come to the forefront. Derrida’s ‘Force of law: the mystical foundations of authority’ (1992) will be used to explore these issues, as well as Lacan’s (1979), Althusser’s (1970) and Zizeks’ (1989) analyses of ideology. Furthermore, based on the above analysis, the question ‘does the ecological crisis (as elaborated upon by philosophical theory of previous chapters) provide a context in which certain criteria arise for choosing more and less appropriate ideologies/narratives?’ will be explored with reference to the theorists already named in this section.

Chapter 6 focuses extensively on permaculture and establishes it as crucially relevant in light of the previous chapters. It goes without saying that the practical, physical ‘end result’ (1988: 9) Mollison mentions above arises from theoretical, ‘narrative’ components of the discourse; in testing these ‘components’ of permaculture against the theoretical, ‘narrative’, and practical ‘components’ scrutinized in the first five chapters of this thesis, it will be possible to decide qualitatively whether or not permaculture is a good dialectical synthesis resulting from a ‘dialogue’ between the ecologically-insensitive and ecologically-sensitive narratives.

In Chapter 7, some of the issues and implications of previous chapters will be considered by placing them in the practical context of an existing permaculture homestead and lifestyle. First, a review of the findings of the relevant socio-political, economic and ecological situation will be given in the ‘terms’ of, and according to the themes encountered in (as far as is possible), the previous chapters. Then, one final ‘test’ of the idea that permaculture is philosophy as a way of life will be conducted by examining the permaculture project against the relevant practical and theoretical components of the first 6 chapters of the study. In this way a firm, realistic ‘picture’ of ‘philosophy put into practice’ according to the ‘instructions’ of permaculture can be offered.

Research Methodology

The above section – the ‘proposed structure of the study’ – already goes a long way towards describing methodological aspects of the proposed research study. From the above, it is clear that a qualitative methodology will be employed throughout. Critical theory is the theoretical framework and will be the overall research paradigm; it will provide the methods of discourse analysis. This means applying the approaches of neo-marxist members of the Frankfurt school – Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Marcuse, etc. – and poststructuralist thinkers – Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, etc., as well as a thinker who is both a neo-marxist and a psychoanalytical theorist, Kovel, to critique the various discourses of TDC and ‘counter-discourses’.

Alongside the qualitative employment of critical theory, a critical review of literature will take place, as well as a synthesis of multiple interdisciplinary sources. The dimension of practical application will be included, where, for example, Gadamer and the hermeneutic circle will be referred to; Hadot’s critique of philosophy as a way of life will play a central role in this regard.

Finally, a case study of a permaculture project will conclude the research. The permaculture project is being documented online – weekly entries about the permaculture lifestyle are being posted on the blog. These posts will be reviewed by means of self-reflective discourse analysis in mid-2016 (as per the ‘activities’ plan, below), the year this research study will be completed. The posts will be assessed and evaluated by asking reflective questions that require the entries to be scrutinised according to the broad themes and issues identified in the previous chapters of the study. This is an exploratory aspect of the research study and must be open-ended in order for a full synthesis to occur as naturally as possible.

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