Friday, August 19, 2011

The Problem is the Solution -- Permaculture as a whole-life approach

In previous posts we have explored some of the tools that I use to work toward that better life.  While I certainly appreciate everything that I have learned from many of the podcasts that I have listened to and websites I have read over the past several years, I often walk away from them with the feeling that the people behind them know so much more about what they're doing than I do, because they never talk about their mistakes.

Rest assured, I have made plenty of mistakes in my life, and I never want any of my readers to operate under the assumption that I don't make mistakes.  I've made a ton of them, I continue to make them, and once I learned to not live in fear of those mistakes and instead embrace them as a learning opportunity, I found them to be a valuable tool on my journey toward that better life.  In that spirit, this post is going to explore the process by which I came to where I am now, and how I learned to embrace the problems I encountered as potential solutions to my want for a better life.

The "Anti-Approach"

My views in adolescence and young adulthood were generally formed by what I was against, as opposed to the things that I wanted.  An outlook founded in negativity like that plays both the victim and the crutch -- you don't take an active role in a lot of things, and the innate unfairness of the imperfect world offered excuses for that failure to take that active role.  This passiveness meant I didn't spend enough time  developing my own skills and abilities -- whether those skills or abilities were concerned with my workaday life or something else. 

It was this demand that an imperfect world be set right and made fair that led me into the world of left-wing political activism.  I jumped right in with a movement whose name probably fit my outlook better than any other -- the "anti-globalization" movement.  While I still believe that there are many injustices that exist in the world, now I also know that they can only be fixed from the ground-up as individuals and members of our communities.  Back then I thought that only if we got the right policies installed from above, all of our problems as a society (and, admittedly, an individual) would melt away.

About nine to ten years ago I stumbled upon the topic of peak oil, and like many people who stumble upon that topic, suddenly felt like my entire world was turning upside down.  Where before I was passive, now I became impulsive.  I set about to change just about every aspect of my life in response to the overwhelming sense of foreboding that peak oil (and often with predictable results).  I changed my career track and went back to full-time college studies to become a history teacher.  My wife and I sold our condo and bought a house at the peak of the real estate bubble (though at least we had the sense to get a fixed term with 20% down).  Within two years I was struggling to find full-time teaching work, we were underwater on a house that hung around our neck like a millstone, and my marriage was suffering under the strain.  Like I said earlier -- predictable results.

Falling back into old habits was too easy at this point.  I blamed the unfairness of the world for my troubles, and this blame in turn absolved me from action.  Except this time, there was no economic boom and opportunities did not fall in my lap as they once had.  This was difficult for me to deal with, stuck as I was in those old habits -- but eventually (and with the unbelievable support of my wonderful wife) I was able to break most of them.  One of the biggest keys in this transformation was permaculture.  It's ethical system provides a blueprint not just for how to produce your food, but how to live your life.

The Problem is the Solution

If I had been able to keep a full-time teaching position, I likely would never have opened to the amazing changes that can happen through permaculture and the "active living" model it demands from you.  Permaculture teaches us that the world has bounty, and that by just taking responsibility for the earth, ourselves, our children and our neighbors, we can discover this bounty.  Even someone with as negative an outlook as me cannot help but feel positive when looking at things from a permaculture perspective.  Life may be even more grossly unfair than before, things may in many ways be looking down, but I still can't help but feel content with where I am right now and confident that I'm developing the tools to lead me to that better life.

One example of this outlook is the way I view the 3-hour (or more) round trip commute I have every day to New York City.  While part of my plan is to have employment that allows me to be more available to my children and wife and a long commute doesn't accomplish that, it does give me valuable time alone for thinking and learning.  I take a little mp3 player with me in the car and listen to podcasts about topics I'm interested in -- permaculture, homesteading, economics and finance, food preparation, history and social trends.  This time alone every day had the potential to be a positive -- it was no longer a negative to be resented.

Another example is the way I view my job itself.  I count myself extremely fortunate to have found employment in times that are difficult for so many.  At the same time, my job is not something that I'm required to get fulfillment from.  It's something that I trade my time for in order to get money.  In the world we live in (regardless of what it looks on the other side of our numerous unfolding crises) money can help solve a lot of problems and the more that I can do to pay down debt, save, and invest in household production and resiliency, the more I'm taking responsibility for the earth, myself and my family.

I feel a definite sense of responsibility to my job.  I also have a sense of responsibility to my family.  I know which one is the greater responsibility, which helps me to set limits on demands to my time.  I don't apologize for not being able to stay late without notice (except in the event of a real emergency), nor do I feel guilty about using my vacation time.  The funny thing is that none of these traits hurt me in the work world -- they help me to stay grounded and sane instead of burning out.  More importantly I'm able to spend those precious, fleeting moments with my kids while they grow up -- a few more now, a lot more as part of my better life.


My point in this post is this: if an underachiever like me can make such sweeping and positive changes toward creating that better life, then surely you can too.  I still make just as many mistakes as before -- if not more -- except for now they're a lot more part of the observation process.  I learn from them.  I move on and apply them without guilt.  Or at least I try on that last part, and have been getting better the more that I've tried.  Living by permaculture is not a complicated method to follow, but it is difficult, and increases in difficulty the further you get away from it.

Don't stay away from applying permaculture to your life.  Start applying it now.  If you're patient, you can see a marked difference in both your motivation to have a better life but also the way you actually live.  I know I have!

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