Permaculture Solutions to Climate Change

Permaculture Solutions for Climate Change

September, 2014

By Starhawk

With Arctic ice melting more rapidly than anyone predicted, glaciers disappearing, freak storms and the carbon in the atmosphere climbing rapidly, climate change is not something on the horizon, it’s here. In California, as we suffer through the worst drought in memory, it’s both inescapable and frightening. What will happen if the rains do not return this autumn, with our reservoirs low and our lands crying out for water? What will happen if this anomaly turns out to be the new normal?

A week from now, the UN Climate Summit in New York City will be greeted by the biggest climate change protest in history. I hope everyone who possibly can will be there. I’ll be on the West Coast, at the Women’s Permaculture Convergence which was planned months before the march was scheduled. But there, I will be part of a panel on Permaculture Solutions to Climate Change.

I teach permaculture, often with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism, through our Earth Activist Trainings. I practice it on the ranch managed by Earth Activist Training teacher Charles Williams, and in urban settings in inner-city San Francisco. I’ve written about it and made a documentary together with director Donna Read Cooper. For me, it’s a great, practical balance to my work as a writer and a teacher of ritual and earth-based spirituality, and a hopeful counterweight to the activism that addresses the enormous problems we face. I especially appreciate permaculture’s focus on integrated solutions.

For there are solutions. And that’s vitally important to know. More and more, when I talk to people about this issue, I hear despair and hopelessness. “It’s too late.” “It’s too big.” “There’s nothing we can do.”

Hopelessness is profoundly disempowering, but it can also be anesthetizing. It generates apathy. If I can’t do anything, then I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to take action or take risks. But if I feel a sense of hope, if I can see a pathway forward, then I might find myself tramping along a rocky road full of discomforts and dangers.

At the same time, I see hopelessness infecting some of the activists who are most dedicated and committed. The urgency of the issue can consume us and turn us into joyless, hectoring ascetics who writhe in guilt over every moment of pleasure and scold their fellows for every small indulgence. “How can you go shopping when your grandchildren will be roasting to death on a dying planet?” “Human beings are a blight on the planet, and everything we touch is doomed.”

We can’t mobilize people by telling them they are bad and wrong and the world would be better off without them. What we need is more like a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Hey kids, we can put on a show in our own backyard!” moment of optimism. We need to believe that we can do something, and that each one of us has an important role to play in making the change. We need to trust that the process of transformation can be a joyful one that will lead us into a better world.

To make that shift, we need a vision of what that new world would look like and a set of strategies for getting there. The international permaculture movement offers both.


Permaculture Ethics


Permaculture is a system of ecological design, originated by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the ‘seventies. It’s now a worldwide movement of practitioners, researchers and teachers who look to nature as a model that can show us how to meet human needs while regenerating the environment around us. The genius of permaculture lies, not in any single technique, but in looking at how multiple techniques can be woven together into systems that are more than the sum of their parts. It offers both practical tools and an ethical framework for change.

The major obstacles to addressing climate change are not technological or even ecological. They are political, moral, and spiritual, a set of beliefs and power structures that are driving the twin crises of environmental breakdown and social disintegration.

“Greed is good” has been the watchword since the Reagan era, and the exaltation of selfishness, individual and corporate, has led to political gridlock, crumbling infrastructures, environmental devastation, and the impoverishment of the 99% while the 1% concentrate wealth beyond the dreams of emperors. Climate change cannot be solved in this framework that honors the accumulation of wealth over all other values and exempts it from all responsibility.

To address climate change, we need a radically different ethic, one based on the values of caring, sharing, and mutual responsibility that are core values of almost all human societies and religions. We are not single, isolated actors, we are interdependent and to thrive, we must be accountable to the whole.

Indigenous cultures and those who live close to the earth have always known that we cannot take endlessly from a system without giving back. Philosophy and religion, both Eastern and Western, have preached compassion, fidelity, and told us to love our neighbors as ourselves – albeit that these virtues are often more preached than practiced.

Permaculture offers a simple, secular framework of ethics that can guide us: ‘Care for the earth’, ‘Care for the people’, and ‘Care for the Future’, which implies the imperatives to return surpluses into the system, limit consumption and take no more than your fair share.

We need a clear framework of values in order to confront the immense vested interests which both continue the damage and prevent us from employing the tools of regeneration. And we need to transform those ethics into policies and programs.

What would this look like in practice? Imagine a world in which permaculture’s three ethics were the basis of law and policy.


Care for the Earth:

Corporations and individuals would be required to insure that their enterprises were, at minimum, harmless to the community and the environment and sustainable – not using more resources than they replenish.

Even better, enterprises should aim to be regenerative – improving the health and biodiversity of the surrounding environment. Below I will discuss what some of those regenerative practices might be.

Resources would be directed into research and programs that would help the transition to a regenerative technology and economy. Imagine where solar technology might be right now if the billions that have gone into nuclear power had gone into research on renewables! Work that restores damaged ecosystems and heals toxicity would be valued and paid for and new jobs would be created.


Care for the People:

The mandated purpose of corporate and individual enterprises should be to meet human and environmental needs and desires while providing lives of prosperity and dignity for everyone involved.

Productive enterprises, from businesses to agriculture, would be rooted in local communities, serve them primarily and be accountable to them. No longer would they be free to roam the globe in search of the cheapest labor and most lax environmental and safety standards.

Technology and economy would shift away from their bias toward concentration of resources and power to wide distribution of resources and power. This might look like solar panels on every home instead of nukes, and financial policies that penalize instead of encouraging the hoarding of wealth.

Those who engage in work that helps people and the earth would be encouraged and rewarded, as opposed to our current system, in which anyone who aspires to be a teacher, a farmer, a healer or even a firefighter is penalized, while those who manipulate abstractions and exploit others are rewarded.

An immense amount of labor and brainpower will be needed to make the transition, and resources should flow into programs to educate young people for these challenges, provide jobs and financial support for making needed changes, and retrain workers in exploitative industries.


Care for the Future:

We would shift rapidly from a fossil fuel economy toward one based on renewable sources of energy.

We would stop exploiting resources that cannot be replaced, or limit their use and find ways to re-use and recycle them.

We would develop industrial ecologies, where the ‘wastes’ of one industry become the raw materials of another.

We would assure health care for all people and a free, quality education for all young people as a right. We would provide programs to re-educate and train older people, as well, to adapt their skills for new forms of work and to deepen their enjoyment of life.

We would pour resources into research and support for the transition to regenerative forms of agricultural and industrial production.

New businesses and enterprises would be judged not on their monetary return on investment but their EROEI: Energy Return on Energy Invested. For example, industrial agriculture, with its massive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery and transport of products, uses 15 calories of fuel to produce one calorie of food. While it may be profitable financially to the big corporations that supply chemicals, pesticides and fuel, its EROEI is disastrous!


This is just the scaffolding of an ethical framework. Once we have such a framework in place, we can use it to test our decisions. Should we build a new nuclear power plant? Considering the incalculable amount of damage it might cause if something goes wrong, we’d stop right there. But we might also consider the lack of facilities for dealing with nuclear waste, the immense amount of energy needed to construct a plant—much of it in the energy needed to make concrete which has a huge carbon footprint, the centralization of power a nuke represents, and the limited number of jobs it produces. A better alternative might be to put those hundreds of millions of dollars into a mix of rooftop solar, wind generators, and research into new forms of solar energy that would not require rare earths or other nonrenewable materials to make them.

We can also test the nuances of our personal decisions. Should I put solar panels on my house, or use the money to replace my old, leaky windows? Most likely improving your windows and insulation will have a better EROEI and might support a local business. Should I eat meat? No, not if it’s factory-farmed somewhere thousands of miles away. Yes, if it’s local, grass-fed beef from a producer using regenerative holistic range management techniques. Should I fly across the country to comfort my dying mother? Yes. You’ll add to your carbon footprint, true, but you’ll be a better, more whole human being which may further the effectiveness of everything you do for the rest of your life.


Practical Solutions and Strategies:


Alternative Energy

The strategies and practices I will discuss below can augment the transition in our energy systems and technology, but they are no substitute for rapidly reducing our use of fossil fuels. We need to stop pumping fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere and instead turn to safe, proven renewables. I have focused less on this because there is already so much written about it. Alternatives to fossil fuels exist, they are already viable and rapidly becoming less expensive. Germany—not the sunniest place on earth—now gets 30 to 50% of its electricity from solar panels!

The problems in making the shift are not technological—although with more resources put toward research and development even more efficient alternatives can be created. The obstacles are economic and political, and they must be addressed with political pressure to hold oil companies and polluters accountable, remove subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, and offer tax incentives, rebates, retraining and retooling and subsidies to further the shift.


Carbon Sequestration the Permaculture Way


We are already past what scientists believe is the tipping point, already seeing major changes in the ice, the oceans, the tundra. Is there any way we can turn it back and safely pull some of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere?

A permaculture approach would point us to four interconnected areas, all of which use nature’s own methods – plants! – to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in soil, where it can heal and regenerate damaged systems.


Soil as a Carbon Sink

We all know that burning fossil fuels has overloaded the atmosphere with excess carbon. But much of that excess may also come from our agricultural practices. Healthy, fertile soil is full of humus – soil organic carbon. When the ground is tilled, or forests are clear-cut and the soil is exposed, that carbon oxidizes into the atmosphere. In other words, it meets air, joins up with the oxygen, and becomes carbon dioxide.

Looking on the bright side, this means that the soils of the world are carbon-hungry. If we fill that need, we can pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere in ways that are safe and have thousands of other benefits. Rebuilding damaged soil restores ecosystems, improves our food security, prevents erosion and restores compromised water cycles. Unlike untried massive geo-engineering schemes, it has no down side. It is exactly what we need to do, even if climate change were not a factor.


Soil as a Living System

Until the 1980s, scientists who studied soil looked mostly at its chemical composition. When researchers began investigating the biological life of the soil, they discovered a rich, interlocking ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, micro-organisms, micro-arthropods, worms and other animals who work together in symbiosis to produce soil health and fertility. Researchers such as Dr. Elaine Ingham have developed practices to support the soil food web. Paul Stamets has explored the powerful potential for fungi and mushrooms to break down toxins in soil and restore health and fertility.

A sane climate-change policy would support this research and more.


Compost and Compost Tea: Cities would separate organic matter from garbage and compost it – some already do. Composting clinics would be established where people could learn to compost their own food wastes. Composting would be taught in schools as one of the basic life skills, along with the three R’s. Compost tea brewers that create rich inoculants would


Vermiculture: Communities would establish worm banks to encourage vermiculture and compost tea brewers to create rich inoculants.

Mycelium banks would be created in every community to propagate local strains of beneficial fungi that could be used for food, medicine, to improve soil fertility and break down toxins.

Compost toilets and methane digestors would be legalized and subsidized, especially in rural areas, to deal with human and concentrated animal waste.


Biochar: Forest waste, and some urban waste streams such as cardboard and wood scraps, can produce biochar, charcoal made under special conditions that preserves much of the carbon in its source and turns it into rich habitat for micro-organims.   Biochar can be added to soil as an amendment that increases fertility, provides habitat for beneficial micro-organisms, and helps to hold water.

Cities could establish their own biochar kilns to process some of their waste streams. Rural areas could build kilns to handle the thinnings from forestry and some of the agricultural residue. The heat from the kilns could be used to heat buildings or water or to produce electricity.

Super-efficient biochar woodstoves can be used to cook food while producing biochar, and they could be distributed throughout the less-developed world to help conserve wood supplies while producing soil amendments. Albert Bates, in his book The Biochar Solution, explores these and many other exciting possibilities.


Trees and Forests


Preserve the Pristine: We would impose an absolute moratorium on the clear-cutting of old growth, including boreal, temperate and tropical rain forests, which are huge sinks for carbon and irreplaceable sources of biodiversity.


Sustainable forestry: We would shift away from ecologically damaging clearcuts to sustainable practices, selective harvesting, pruning, and thinning. We’d revive ancient techniques such as coppicing and pollarding, and find uses for poles and smaller timbers.


Reforestation: We would fund and encourage tree planting – not timber factory monocultures but diverse forest systems. Cities would plant street trees for shade, beauty and fruit, and might maintain community forests in outlying areas for recreation, wood, and ecosystem management. Marginal areas such as the Sahel in North Africa can use Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration to restore woodlands and provide forage and firewood.


Agroforestry: Food for humans can be grown in many ways that preserve and encourage forests. Row crops can be surrounded by hedgerows or interplanted with allees of useful trees. Food forests produce food, fodder, fiber, medicine and more in systems that mimic natural forests. ‘Fedges’ are food-producing hedges.   City parks could plant food forests that would provide opportunities for urban dwellers to forage and feast on nature’s bounty.




We could phase out industrial agriculture and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and shift to organic agriculture and regenerative growing techniques that preserve habitat and build soil. To make this change, we could give farmers and ranchers financial support and incentives.


Perennial Food Systems: Much of our agriculture is based on annuals, grains and vegetables that live for one season and need to be replanted. Instead, we could support the research and development of more perennial crops, that do not need constant replanting, and use the thousands of species available, from tree crops to berries to herbs, to establish perennial food systems. Eric Toensmeier has a great resource for perennial plants on his website:


Low-till and no-till food growing systems: Systems exist for growing annuals in ways that involve minimal tilling. More research and support for farmers to adapt these techniques would aid in the shift away from erosive soil disturbance.


Local food systems: Cities could establish nearby agricultural zones, protecting prime farmland from development. Suburban lawns can be transformed to productive gardens or food forests. Farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture partnerships where consumers link directly to farmers, market gardens, roof gardens, school garden programs and community gardens are all strategies to help shift food production back to local areas. The Local Food movement is already growing, and could be encouraged with tax benefits, grants and subsidies.



Grasslands co-evolved with grazers and predators, and need both for their health. Grasslands store fertility in the form of soil organic carbon, underground where it will not be released into the atmosphere by fire. They have the potential to be enormous carbon sinks by replenishing soil fertility, which will also heal erosion and restore damaged water cycles.

Where possible, we can restore predators and keystone species where possible—for example, bringing wolves back to Yellowstone regenerated the ecology of streams and forests by changing animal behavior.

Holistic range management, also called mob grazing is a powerful tool to reverse desertification. It was developed by Alan Savory who now directs the Savory Institute. Livestock is managed by grazing in bunches confined to small areas that move frequently, which mimics the way wild herds behave when predators are present. Grass is grazed down hard, the thatch is broken up and pounded into the soil and fertilized with the animals’ wastes – and then they move on and give the grass time to recover and regrow. With each grazing, the grasses shed roots underground which decay and build soil. Ranchers can run more livestock per acre than with conventional methods, while regenerating marginal land. See Alan Savory’s TED talk at:




Water is one of the key issues in a parched and overheating world. And water is a key necessity for life, for the growth of plants and the viability of soil life. Permaculture offers powerful tools for harvesting and conserving water and rehydrating the land.


Water as a human right: Water is necessary for life. Communities should be in control of their own water systems. Water should not be privatized or viewed as a source of profit. In a world where water is becoming ever more scarce and precious due to climate change, polluting water should be not be allowed. Industries that by their nature pollute water should be required to restore all water to drinking-water standards. Practices such as fracking which endanger underground aquifers should be banned.


Water as a right of nature: Not just humans depend on water. It’s the key driver of multiple ecosystems, of fisheries, wetlands, migratory birds, and all of life. Other creatures besides us also have a right to water, and safeguarding that right will, in the end, benefit us by fostering the survival of healthy ecosystems around us. Adopting water conservation methods and farming techniques which are not wasteful of water can allow us to maintain healthy river flows for fisheries and an adequate supply of water for all.


Water-harvesting earthworks: Swales – ditches with berms on contour – ponds, keyline systems which move water slowly across the landscape, mulch, and many more techniques exist which can slow, spread, and sink the water that falls on the land, infiltrating the soil, building water lenses and replenishing aquifers, and preventing erosion by capturing runoff.


Urban water harvesting: In urban areas, mini-swales, rain gardens, curb cuts and porous pavement can harvest rainfall and infiltrate excess into the land, reducing the need for watering and preventing the overload on sewers during storms.


Roof catchment: Roofs can be fitted with gutters to capture rainwater and direct it into storage tanks, making it available for gardens and other uses.


Graywater: Water from laundry, showers and sinks can be captured, filtered with simple systems and used to grow trees, shrubs, ornamentals and lawns.


Aquaponics: Greens and fish can be produced in systems that recirculate the water. The fish wastes fertilize the plants, the plants clean the water. These systems use 70-90 per cent less water than conventional farming and can produce large amounts of food in small spaces. In greenhouses, they can produce greens all winter in cold climates.


Laws, regulations and policies: In some places, rainwater catchment or graywater re-use are illegal. Laws and regulations need to be changed, and model codes developed that will be easy for regulators to adopt.


Making the Transition


Many of these solutions have something in common. They involve more thought, observation and labor than conventional practices. In a world in which unemployment is a huge problem, this could be a benefit. But in an economy set up to favor heavy inputs of energy rather than inputs of labor, it’s a drawback. To make the transition feasible and sustainable, we need a new form of economics.



Our current economy is designed to maximize profit and concentrate wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many and the planet. A sane economics would instead favor and reward those practices which lead to a healthy ecology and a thriving community.

That’s a huge transformation. Some steps along the way might be:


Hold Corporations Accountable for the Damage: If I were to go into my neighbor’s house and slip poison into her dinner, I’d be a criminal. But if a corporation poisons the water, the soil, or the air, they are rarely penalized beyond at most a financial slap on the wrist. As a result, the environmental and human costs of their products and practices are not part of their accounting, they are ‘externalities’. And responsible corporations are penalized with higher costs of production than those borne by irresponsible companies.

Governments can change this by requiring financial and legal liability from corporations. The tar sands would shut down if the companies involved had to pay for the cancers downstream. No nukes could be built in the US if our government no longer provided insurance for the builders. Oil companies would soon go out of business if they had to pay for the Gulf Oil Spill or shoulder the real costs of broken pipelines and spills.


Government action: Governments, through taxes, grants and subsidies, can help us make the transition to a regenerative economy.


Investors and funders: Private investors and funders, large and small, can put resources into programs and enterprises that help make these needed shifts.


Entrepreneurs: Inventive and energetic folks can start new businesses that follow the ethics and employ regenerative practices.


Consumers: We cannot shop our way out of climate change. The needed changes are too big, and the destruction is too vast, for us to simply buy green and assume that will be enough. But we can make choices to support local businesses and producers that care for the earth, the people and the future, and help keep their enterprises viable.


Hope and Action


The earth, the people, and the future, are all at stake right now. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is directly related to the concentration of wealth and power here on earth, and we can easily feel overwhelmed by the task of transformation. We need both huge, systemic changes, and immediate small reforms, and both seem difficult to make.  But we have many solutions available to us, and many reasons to let hope galvanize us into positive action.

The solution to both our social and ecological solutions is the same: community. Restore the community of caring and sharing, understand that community means the interconnection of people with the environment and natural communities that sustain us, restore power and resources to communities, and trust in the resilience of the community of life. We have already altered the world, and it will never be the same again. But if we take action to stop the damage and employ the solutions, if we partner with nature and our great earth-healing allies, it can still be a beautiful, thriving, life-sustaining place for ourselves, for the life around us, and for future generations.


Starhawk teaches permaculture through Earth Activist Trainings. In the next year, we’ll have courses in Northern California, British Columbia, Western Massachusetts and Spain, and she’ll be coteaching a course in Belize. Check our website for information.


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