Zev Friedman on Permaculture and Climate Resilience
The most challenging aspect of climate change, argues School of Integrated Living instructor Zev Friedman, isn’t preparing for the future. It’s knowing which future to prepare for. Different plausible climate scenarios developed by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis show the forests of the Southern Appalachians expanding, being replaced by savannah, or transforming into deserts. Change is certain, but its impacts are difficult to predict.
“Governments plan for climate change through massive infrastructure projects like aqueducts and dams, but with this much uncertainty, focusing huge amounts of resources on a single solution is a failing strategy,” says Zev. Instead, the best way to tackle the big problem of climate resilience is to think small — applied permaculture that stays flexible through the use of diversity.
Zev and Courtney Brooke Allen have reformatted SOIL’s Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) Course, taking place at Earthaven Ecovillage on July 5–26, with this focus on designing for climate adaptation. Read Zev’s interview below to learn more about the updates to this certification course, permaculture’s evolving relationship with climate change, and the value of community in climate resilience.
SOIL: How do you define “climate resilience?”
Zev Friedman: All of the science tells us that we’re going to have dramatic change on the face of the Earth in the next 100 years, even if we stop burning all fossil fuels right now. But the scenarios for how climate change will affect our specific region and its agriculture are radically different. We aren’t going to know the direction of climate change until it’s happening, so climate resilience means staying flexible. Small-scale agroecological farming — permaculture — allows people to adapt to climate change on a micro-regional level.
What aspects allow permaculture to respond so well to climate change?
ZF: One of the 20 permaculture principles is to use and value diversity. Diversity is always the most resilient design strategy: if you have ten branching options and you expect that seven will fail, you still have three successes to use as nuclei for expansion. In a farming context, that means planting some sites like you’re going to get 100 inches of rain per year and others like you’re going to get 10, all while considering different temperature possibilities. Large-scale farmers can’t afford the time and attention to have that kind of diversity, while a network of coordinated permaculture farmers can.
Permaculture was founded in the 1970s, when climate change wasn’t as well understood as it is now. In what ways has the movement changed to reflect new insights on climate?
ZF: I think what we’re learning now is that the survival path is one of retrofitting, not necessarily starting entirely new communities on raw land. There’s so much existing infrastructure already in the world, much of it abandoned or underused, especially in suburban environments. Permaculture has also largely focused on designing for single properties, but we’re emphasizing how these projects need to be embedded in a larger human ecosystem of interdependence to be successful.
Why is community so important to climate adaptation?
ZF: What nongovernmental organizations working with so-called “poor countries” all over the world have found is that people don’t behave altruistically if their basic needs aren’t met. In Haiti, for example, if you go out and plant 10 million trees for agroforestry, everybody comes and cuts them down because they need firewood to cook with. Cultural support systems, such as mutual aid societies or the Cherokee practice of Gadugi, give people the space to start thinking about something bigger than their own daily survival. For the PDC course itself, we want participants to leave feeling like they’re part of a movement that actually has hopeful next steps for addressing climate change and can grow their own community-scale biocultural strategies.
How have you and the other instructors redesigned the PDC course to better address climate resilience?
ZF: This course is a marriage of two different permaculture lineages: the one from Courtney’s mentor Robina McCurdy in New Zealand and the one from Patricia Allison and Chuck Marsh at Earthaven. It’s like two strains of corn that have been bred for 35 years in isolation being brought together. The New Zealand approach in particular carries more hands-on, relational, multiple-intelligence learning, and we’re emphasizing more microdesign exercises before the main design project. We’re also taking the emphasis on detailed content from the Earthaven approach and explicitly tying all of the different course segments into climate change.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ZF: The process of becoming an agroecological farmer is like getting a postgraduate degree. We have a culture that says farming is for stupid people, but when you meet successful farmers in Guatemala or the mountains of Sri Lanka, their total sum of interdisciplinary wisdom is greater than that of most professors at universities. Being a human in an environment covers a vast body of knowledge, and I’m still learning it every day.
Learn more about the Permaculture Design Certification Course, taking place July 5–26, at this program page. Remember to subscribe to SOIL’s newsletter for the latest program announcements, sustainability tips, and radical inspiration