Thursday, 22 May 2014

Permaculture (and) Religion

by Chris Marsh

This article is a contribution to the often contentious discussion about whether or not religion (and/or spirituality, metaphysics, mysticism, god(s) or goddess(es) and associated writings, rituals and images) is/are – or should be – part of permaculture. My own position, during twenty years of being interested in permaculture as a movement for radical world change, has tended to be that attention being given to all this spirituality stuff does more harm than good.1 I now think there may be a case for seeing permaculture as religious, even as a religion, in the original sense of a shared understanding that binds a community together.

The religiousness of permaculture comes with its ethical principles: ‘Care for the earth; Care for people; Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus’.2 Caring for people means being sensitive to their needs and desires, including their faith in god and receptivity to religious ideas.3 Hence we should respect or at least tolerate all the various kinds of subjective beliefs people hold dear, and perhaps look for some core belief at the heart of all those.

In his influential book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture, examines the ‘spiritual dimensions’ of permaculture early on in his chapter on the ethics. He writes that ‘beliefs about a higher purpose in nature’ have been an ‘aspect of sustainable cultures’ of the past which we ignore ‘at our peril’. Holmgren may have been showing respect for people who feel this way, but he also mentions his own experience, following his ‘atheist upbringing’, of being gradually, through permaculture, ‘drawn towards some sort of spiritual awareness and perspective’.4

When I was considering writing something about ‘permaculture and spirituality’, I searched the internet and found a discussion on this topic initiated two years ago by Craig Mackintosh of the Australian Permaculture Research Institute, which provoked hundreds of comments, generally agreeing with his view that the airing of personal spiritual beliefs – some used phrases like ‘hippy woo-woo’ – puts people off permaculture, and that teachers especially must concentrate on the design science. The divisiveness of this issue: the spectrum of condescension, is concerning.5

My search also brought up an article by a permaculture teacher who welcomes the Mackintosh post and the views it provoked, cheerfully admitting his own lack of sympathy with ‘that set of credulity’ known as ‘New Age Spirituality’. He goes on to take issue with Holmgren and others on the notion that there have been human cultures which were sustainable in the long term.6 This is certainly what I have found while carrying out research into past and present problems of land degradation. It seems to me conceivable that people resorted to appeals to higher powers when access to resources was becoming insecure. It would be when prey species were becoming scarce due to over-hunting that people would draw their images on cave walls to conjure their return. Similarly, when extensive forest clearance for agriculture changed the climate to alternating floods and drought, people might well resort to appealing to a rain god in the sky.7 The view that the ways we meet our needs only became unsustainable with the advent of urban industrial society is wrong. A useful book on how destructive our species has been for perhaps 100,000 years is Tim Flannery’s Future Eaters, which Holmgren mentions once, but not in this context.8

There is a way to reconcile – and at the same time challenge – the positions for and against spirituality having a place in permaculture. Firstly we need to blur the distinction between religion and anthropology, in a similar way to the observation that Hinduism ‘is really an anthropological process to which, by a strange irony of fate, the name of religion has been given’.9 Secondly we should at least be open to accepting the pretty strong evidence that there have never been any older cultures which were ecologically sustainable in the long term. Then we can identify permaculture as the religion/anthropology of the future, which is consciously and deliberately headed for the first time towards achieving sustainability. This implies collective commitment and a period of planned transition.

Whilst our species has always destroyed its resource base in the long term, human groups and their complex cultures have survived for very long periods of time in different parts of the world. There has been no lack of permanent cultures. Our species is inherently social, and to understand ourselves we need to study the history of human cultures, probing deep into the past before we were literate or even capable of speech.10 From that perspective it is somewhat puzzling that most of the people responding to the Mackintosh post see religion, spirituality and all that, as something personal, and hence not part of permaculture. Interestingly, the kind of religiousness sometimes called ‘scientism’ comes through in the discussion.11 A search for ‘science’ brings up over four hundred matches in the three hundred responses, so it seems that permaculturists believe in science, specifically ‘design science’. Seeing permaculture as scientific evidently validates it in many people’s minds.

I contributed an article earlier in this series on ‘Permaculture and Tagore’ about Tagore’s practical efforts over fifty years to revive traditional Indian society which had been severely disrupted by British rule:

[Tagore’s] remedy for a broken society was to heal it from within. Cooperation was the key. People must get together in their local communities to help each other and themselves. To give them a start, they would need advice and expertise, suitable training and education, health and welfare provision, affordable finance, and encouragement towards developing participative government and local conflict resolution. Most importantly for Tagore, to counter fatalism and apathy their spirits must be raised, by reviving traditional arts and crafts, music and story-telling, fairs and festivities. Tagore’s motivation changed over the course of his rural reconstruction efforts: initially he felt sympathy and a sense of responsibility as a landlord, next he tried to set out a national programme of constructive self government, lastly he pinned his hopes on bringing about change through education. ( )

Tagore ultimately failed in his efforts because there was a tide of change towards a modern western model of society. Tagore became a celebrity in 1913 after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for a collection of devotional poems called Gitanjali. This gave him opportunities to go on lectures tours in Europe and America, and he published the texts of his talks in five books.12 There is only one essay in this collection which relates directly to his rural reconstruction work.13 His main theme was his concern over divisions in modern society. In his very first lecture he talked of how we ‘divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature’.14 In a lecture he gave over twenty times in America he said:

In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision. Obviously God made man to be human; but this modern product has such marvellous square-cut finish, savouring of gigantic manufacture, that the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in his own divine image.15

Tagore was seen in the West as an eastern mystic, and his language suggests he was a monotheist, who ‘believed in’ a God. However, he identified the theme which had run through his talks in the West as the ‘Religion of Man’, which was closer to anthropology than to religion as understood in the West.16 Tagore’s father was a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a form of monotheistic reformed Hinduism, with Christian Unitarian and Sufi influences, but drawing on the ancient teachings called the Upanisads. In an authoritative outline of the philosophy of the Upanisads, they are described as ‘a system of intelligent (personalistic) monism’.17 Despite Tagore’s theistic language, his ‘Religion of Man’, his anthropology, is monistic and personalistic.18

The concept of monism is key to understanding how permaculture may be a religion-cum-anthropology. The Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that monism is a term for the idea that there can only be one kind of self-subsistent, real thing: ‘Monism finds one where dualism finds two’. Physicalist monism is ‘the doctrine that everything that exists is physical, ‘contrasted with mind-body dualism’ and with ‘absolute idealism’.19

Tagore’s monism is different again. In a conversation between Tagore and Albert Einstein in 1930, which has fascinated scholars around the world, Tagore argues that ‘the truth of the Universe is human truth.’ He explains that ‘humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living solidarity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe’ and ‘if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing’.20

Tagore concludes his discussion with Einstein by stating that his religion is ‘the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit, in my own individual being’. The same idea is central to the Upanisads, which present ‘the world of experience as a rational whole’.21 One of the key ideas in these ancient teaching is the reconciliation between the personal and the universal, expressed in Sanskrit as tat tvam asi, or ‘That art thou’.22

There is a danger of interpreting Tagore’s encounter with Einstein as mysticism meeting new science, and of its becoming entangled with the distorted fragments of Indian religious tradition incorporated into western orientalism and esotericism.23 Tagore criticised science on its own terms, informed by his lifelong fascination with scientific speculation and discovery.24 Einstein was a realist, believing that a world exists ‘independent of the human factor’. When challenges on this, Einstein confesses: ‘I cannot prove that my conception is right, but that is my religion’, adding later: ‘Then I am more religious than you are’.

In his Appendix to a translation of the Principal Upanisads, Tagore refers to the people of the period when these texts were written, when the ideas were not abstract but concrete, and realised through life, which is why ‘generations of men in our country, no mere students of philosophy, but seekers of life’s fulfilment, may make living use of the texts, but can never exhaust them of their freshness of meaning’.25 These unifying ideas were the foundation of many ‘permanent cultures’ through the ages, and one wonders how they were lost in the modern world. The German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach attributes the change to Protestant Christianity, which instituted an individualistic faith, focused on personal salvation, by projecting human ideals onto a transcendent deity.26 In his conclusion Feuerbach declares what a more mature religion would involve:

The necessary turning-point of history is therefore the open confession, that the consciousness of God is nothing else than the consciousness of the species; that man can and should raise himself only above the limits of his individuality, and not above the laws, the positive essential conditions of his species; that there is no other essence which man can think, dream of imagine, feel, believe in, wish for, love and adore as the absolute, than the essence of human nature itself. [...] Including external nature; for as man belongs to the essence of Nature,—in opposition to common materialism; so Nature belongs to the essence of man [...]. Only by uniting man with Nature can we conquer the supranaturalistic egoism of Christianity.27

There are benefits and penalties to adopting personalistic monism as the religion and shared truth of permaculture. One benign outcome is ‘unity in diversity’: we must welcome the whole range of human cultures, faiths and practices. This was vitally important to Tagore, who aimed to provide in his ‘Eastern University’ ‘for the co-ordinate study of all these different cultures,—the Vedic, the Puranic, the Buddhist, the Jain, the Islamic, the Sikh and the Zoroastrian[, t]he Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan’ and also Western culture.28 He followed the Indian tradition of people sharing in each other’s festivals and introduced Christo Utsab on 25 December 1910, which is still celebrated at Santiniketan ( . Another benefit is the immortality which follows from what Tagore described as the reconciliation between the personal and the universal. Feuerbach realised this too:

The human lives eternally. Therefore humans die,

For the eternal is nothing but the death of all that is temporal.

True, you will turn to dust someday; but whatever noble thoughts you had,

Whatever you have deeply loved never passes.29

The less comfortable consequence of this truth is that it makes us jointly responsible for the whole prehistory and history of human destructiveness. We have taken advantage of, and eventually exhausted, a series of resource bonanzas: the megafauna we hunted to extinction; the forests, soils and ecosystems we destroyed and degraded as pastoralists and farmers; and the sequestered solar energy from hundreds of millions of years ago that has powered our industrial revolution.

The current bonanza is information communications technologies (ICTs). If permaculture is to be a religion which achieves unity between people and planet, this bonanza is a useful and challenging focus. The internet and mobile communications appear to bring people together, providing new opportunities for spreading permaculture ideas and education. But ICTs are unsustainable. The enormous and ever-growing data centres and server farms are responsible for surprisingly large greenhouse gas emissions, and ICTs are reliant on scarce and, in some cases, toxic mineral resources perpetually thrown away in obsolete devices.30

The internet is a hybrid made up of users and machinery. It is only the latest manifestation of the Western ‘machinery of commerce and politics’ which Tagore saw as dehumanising a century ago. Applying the ‘design science’ of permaculture enables practical steps to be taken to address this alienation. We know that the way to recover our collective humanity is to work at the local level. One powerful idea in the Transition portfolio is the ‘Energy Descent Action Plan’ for the local economy, whereby fossil fuels are used to prepare for doing without them in twenty to thirty years time.31 Surely a component of this will have to be a planned withdraw from ICTs.

I suggested earlier that permaculture has the potential for being the religion/anthropology of the future, which is consciously and deliberately headed for the first time towards achieving sustainability. Religion has united and sustained permanent cultures for millennia. Only quite recently has religion become a personal thing: ‘supranaturalistic egoism’ as Feuerbach called it. Tagore’s religion is ‘the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit, in my own individual being’. To understand oneself in that way means taking responsibility for the past, present and future of the human species, without blame or condescension towards others, caring for planet and people, united in permaculture religion.

Works Cited

Allegro, John M. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970)

Aravamudan, Srinivas, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Bichitra Online Variorum,

Blackburn, Simon, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Christanand, M.P., The Philosophy of Indian Monotheism (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1979)

David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)

Donald, Merlin, Origins of the Human Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)

Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Essence of Christianity, trans by George Eliot (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957 [1944])

Feuerbach, Ludwig, Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, trans. by James A. Massey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980 [1830])

Flannery, Tim, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (Sydney: New Holland, 1997)

Hindupedia, [accessed 7/3/12]

Holmgren, David, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Holmgren Design Services, 2002)

Hopkins, Rob, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2011)

Hume Robert Ernest, ed. and trans., The Thirteen Principal Upanishads: Translated from the Sanskrit (London: Oxford University Press, 1934)

Lawrence & Wishart, ‘Statement on the Collected Works of Marx and Engels’, [13/5/14]).

Lawton, Graham, ‘Losing Our Religion’, New Scientist, 3 May 2014, 30-5.

Mackintosh, Craig, ‘Permaculture and Metaphysics’, [accessed 15/5/14]

Marcham, Jessie, ‘What can permaculture say to god?’, [accessed 15/5/14]

Marsh, Chris, ‘Honouring the Chicken’, [accessed 15/5/14].

Marsh, Chris, ‘Permaculture and Tagore’

Marx Internet Archive,

Marx, Kark and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress, 1952 [1848])

Marx, Karl, ‘Theses On Feuerbach’ (1845), [accessed 8 May 2014]

Marx, Karl, letter to Ludwig Feuerbach, 11 August 1844, in Marx Engels Collected Works (Lawrence & Wishart) [Accessed 18/4/2014 at Marx Internet Archive ( but no longer available.]

Said, Edward, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003 [1978])

Strouts, Graham, [accessed 15/5/14]

Tagore, Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922),

Tagore, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1917)

Tagore, Our Universe, trans. by Indu Dutt (Mumbai: Jaico, 1999 [1937])

Tagore, The Religion of Man: Being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931)

Technology Review,

The Global Connectivity Group, ‘ICTs, the Internet and Sustainability’ [13/5/14]

Wasson, R. Gordon’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, [1966])

1 Chris Marsh, ‘Honouring the Chicken’, [accessed 15/05/14], where I express a similar position to Graham Strouts, in ‘Does Spirituality have a place in Permaculture?’, [accessed 15/5/14].

2 David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Holmgren Design Services, 2002), p. 1.

3 Jessie Marcham sees God is ‘a core part of our lives’ and argues that in the permaculture movement ‘it could be helpful to make our discussion of God a little more explicit’. (Jessie Marcham, ‘What can permaculture say to god?’, ) The sense that god exists, and receptivity to religious ideas, is recognised by cognitive science as a natural feature of human psychology. (Graham Lawton, ‘Losing Our Religion’, New Scientist, 3 May 2014, 30-5.)

4 Holmgren, pp. 2-3.

5 Craig Mackintosh, ‘Permaculture and Metaphysics’, [accessed 15/5/14]

6 Graham Strouts, ‘Does Spirituality have a place in Permaculture?’.

7 John M. Allegro makes a case for Christianity deriving from an ancient fertility cult in his fascinating though highly controversial book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970). The uses of mind altering substances to communicate with higher powers is also the subject of R. Gordon Wasson’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, [1966]).

8 Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (Sydney: New Holland, 1997) Holmgren, p. 168.

9 M.P. Christanand, The Philosophy of Indian Monotheism (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1979), p. 28. (Quote from Govinda Das, Hinduism (Madras: Natesan, 1924), p. 45.)

10 Merlin Donald, Origins of the Human Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)

11 See ‘scientism’ in Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 330.

12 Sadhana (1913), Personality and Nationalism (1917), Creative Unity (1922) and The Religion of Man (1931)These are all available to download: Sadhana: ; Personality: ; Nationalism 1917: ; Creative Unity: ; The Religion of Man: .

13 ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity, pp. 169-203.

14 Sadhana, p. 4.

15 Tagore, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1917), p. 6.

16 The Indian word for religion is dharma but dharma and religion don’t mean the same thing: ‘The Sanskrit word Dharma has no direct translation into English. Among other things, it can be thought of as righteousness in thought, word, and action. It comes from the root Dhr, which means to uphold, sustain, or uplift. Thus another interpretation of the word in English would be ‘the collection of natural and universal laws that uphold, sustain, or uplift’, i.e. law of being; law of nature; individual nature; prescribed duty; social and personal duties; moral code; civil law; code of conduct; morality; way of life; practice; observance; justice; righteousness; religion; religiosity; harmony. ( [accessed 15/5/14]

17 The Upanisads were written about the sixth century B,C., and so were almost contemporaneous with Pythagoras, Confucius and Zoroaster. (Robert Ernest Hume, ‘An Outline of the Philosophy of the Upanisads’, in The Thirteen Principal Upanishads: Translated from the Sanskrit, ed. and trans. by Robert Ernest Hume (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), pp. 1-72 (pp. 1-2).)

18 ‘Tagore is a monist, though he does not deny the reality of the world [...] and denounces the negative attitude towards the world. [...] Tagore’s absolutism is [...] personalistic’. (P.T. Raju, ‘Contemporary Indian Thought’, in History of Philosophy Eastern and Western, Volume One, ed. by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952), pp. 526-36 (p. 532).)

19 Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 238.

20 Tagore, ‘Note of the Nature of Reality’ in The Religion of Man: Being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931), pp. 222-5.

21 Hume, p. 2.

22 Hume, p. 32, Sanskrit Index, pp. 563-6 (p. 564).

23 Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003 [1978]); Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

24 In late life he even wrote a science primer for students at his school and university: Tagore, Our Universe, trans. by Indu Dutt (Mumbai: Jaico, 1999 [1937])

25 Tagore, Appendix A, in The Principal Upanisads, trans. by, ed. by S. Radhakrishnan, pp. 939-43.

26 Feuerbach’s critique of theistic religion is lengthy and laborious, but worth a good look. Fortunately – like many of the major texts – it is available freely online at . It is well to make clear at this point that monism is not the same as monotheism. Monotheism is belief in only one god, but the separation of body and soul, Earth and Heaven – and also good and evil, salvation and damnation – is thoroughly dualistic. There have been monotheistic, and hence dualistic, belief systems in India, notably the Brahmo Samaj, a reformed Hinduism influenced by Christianity, established by Rammohan Roy and continued by Tagore’s father Devendranath. Popular Hinduism is polytheistic, with its traditional epics, rites and festivals involving various divine beings or avatars.

27 Feuerbach, ‘Concluding Application’, in The Essence of Christianity, pp. 270-8 (p. 270). Feuerbach was expressing his hopes for a future which was never realised. The scholars of the day rejected his insights, apart from Karl Marx who was thrilled with them, expressing his ‘great respect’ and ‘love’ for Feuerbach in a letter in August 1844, and telling him of hundreds of communists having lectures on the Wesen des Christenthums, and being very responsive. In 1848 Marx and Engels published their Manifesto of the Communist Party, which concludes with the famous slogan ‘Working men of all Countries, Unite!’ (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress, 1952 [1848]), p. 96.)

28 Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 167-203 (p. 195).

29 Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘On Death and Eternity’, Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, trans. by James A. Massey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980 [1830])

30 The Global Connectivity Group, ‘ICTs, the Internet and Sustainability’, [13/5/14]

Not even the benefits of the internet are sustainable. Access to free information we value is either restricted or being withdrawn. The issue of restricted or free access is much discussed. The not-for-profit research archive JSTOR moved towards free public access, but with restrictions. ( ) Until recently, scholars and activists have taken for granted free and downloadable access to all the works of Marx and Engels, but a huge portion of the Marx Internet Archive ( ) was ordered to be removed on 30 April 2014, for copyright and commercial reasons. (‘Lawrence & Wishart statement on the Collected Works of Marx and Engels’, [13/5/14]). Technology to allow internet access but preventing downloading is becoming more common, see e.g. . Advances in the handling of large textual databases is enabling surveillance and data mining of our personal data by official bodies and commercial interests.

31 Rob Hopkins, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2011), pp. 235-8.

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