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Everyone's favorite; Semantics and Marketing  RSS feed

 
John Hutter
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I think permaculture has something of a semantic issue, with the use of the words perma and culture. Permaculture sounds strong at least.  Kind of pretentious, like "ALL OTHER CULTURES ARE TEMPORARY LESS THANS.  MINE IS A PERMANENT ONE." 

You think you better than me?

All caps, even if the word "permaculture" is whispered.  Even if it is kind of true that modeling your work on the natural order gives it a timeless aspect, and certainly true that the only kind of agriculture that can be thought of as even semi-permanent is agriculture that is sustainable. It seemed like an obvious choice at the time...

"Permanent" is still a very strong word, right up there with law or crime or hate or love.  Strong in the sense that when a person hears it, their unspoken and subconscious mental reactions have a lot of inertia.  That is, people don't really hear the word permanent with an open mind. Permanent is an inherently ambiguous and imprecise word, with the often conflicting assumptions of timescale bound to lead to confusion (if it isn't the Bhuddist and Taoist gardeners thinking to themselves, I thought that the only thing that's permanent is the ever-changing flow itself?)

No, permaculture is permanent because it is the flow. I guess Mollison could have just as well called it, 'the way.' Talk about pretentious... Permanent agriculture. I think choosing the word permanent was whoopsy despite its initial fit.  Of course it was meant, permanent relative to more common agricultural techniques, but that doesn't really come through when you leave out the 'relative' part.  And then 'relatively permanent' is something of a clumsy oxymoron.

One of the standards on the permies forums is that, "mine is the only way" talk is to be avoided if it isn't removed by moderators.  But then this perspective is in the fabric of the word 'permanent.'   The way, the truth, and the light, isn't considered to be anything by it's adherents if it isn't permanent. 

Then agriculture, which is a just fine word that doesn't seem to carry a lot of imprecise baggage.  However, 'culture' is a very strong word with a lot of baggage.  "Culture" without "agri" or "horti" in front is commonly associated with the way people dance, play, socialize, organize, spend free time, etc, all the aspects of all that is "culture" that "permaculture" doesn't really specify.  And it is good that it doesn't specify any those things, because of this there are individuals from a hundred different 'cultures' that practice 'permaculture.' Still, it can seem as if 'permaculture' is trying to be misunderstood.

Permaculture seems to have honed in on what one needs to live in terms of food and sheltar, to be self reliant by working in conjunction with nature and to satisfy these needs without damaging the environment.  Permaculture daresay, enhance the environment, and most people would be very into the idea that having a few humans living on some piece of land somewhere means there is more species and biodiversity and life, rather than less.  Luckily the pro-life intentions didn't make it into the language of the title.  Oh the pro-life movement and its corrupted hateful cultures...

The 'culture' in permaculture doesn't commonly register like 'agri'culture or 'horti'culture.  Agriculture doesn't commonly draw associations of anything outside of farming and food production, whereas permaculture seems to come from a 'way of life' perspective with all the discussion of homesteading methods that often go with it.  The homestead is very much a way of life, like the natural mountain men of old in small rural communities, but now with more developed methods.  More confusion, with 'permaculture' being a component of a culture and 'homesteading' being more if not most of a culture.  Then you could say, from scratch permaculture projects where the creators live on site, those are more or less indistinguishable from the concept of homesteading. 

It's an unfortunate fact that 'permaculture' exists in the unfortunate world of modern marketing, public relations, etc, a world in which all new ideas now exist.  Apparently, not feeding or being part of the widespread systems destroying the life on this planet, is a new idea...In the world of new ideas it's commonly not the actual definition of a word or any corresponding facts that matter when trying to introduce people to new ideas, it's the most common initial subconscious reaction when a person hears the thing.  It's K K K.  Wait, here me out! I mean't, okay okay okay.

If the ecologically friendly production of permaculture is to become the norm before 'modern industrial' ('earth pillaging') civilization destroys a significant portion of the species on this planet (if it hasn't already) the wrong word may have been chosen to be advocated as a novel household word.  Even if it is seen as somewhat trivial by those already in the book, the cover can be a determining factor in whether or not a new person will pick up the book.  

One could have just stuck with natural farming...but farm is another word that has too much psychological inertia in an average urban facebook user, just as the words permanent and culture do. 'Farm' generally inspires images of massive flat fields of a single crop, if it isn't a hellish feed lot or a factory 'farm.' Or the 'farm' might be first associated with farmville, or with the backbreaking labor of peasants we modern city folk are so fortunate to be spared of.  The word 'farm' will not help the public relation effort in any case.

Most Americans at least would not be inclined to call sepp holzer's mountain 'farm' a farm, if they were given a tour and not told what it was.  Garden would beat farm by a significant margin there.  Garden isn't really a good word to use either, gardening is commonly regarded as a hobby for old people, like watching golf on television, not something you can actually meet all your needs with or more.  Garden won't help much.

One last reiteration, it's not the actual dictionary of a word that matters when trying to introduce people to new things, it's how the average mind has been fortunately or unfortunately primed to receive the new idea.  Even if you take some piece of apparently nonsense language, say, bleeble-deeble-dorp, the cultural inertia of the current English language would lead many if not most people to subconsciously associate the novel term with beatles, dweebs and dorks. Even if bleeble-deeble-dorp has nothing to do with beatles, dweebs or dorks, bleeble-deeble-dorp is never going to to be considered with an open mind by many people, because they have already been conditioned to receive things like beatles, dweebs and dorks in a certain way.

I'll give the genious Mollison that permanent agriculture shorthanded to permaculture fared better than bleeble-deeble-dorp would have, but I think there is much room for improvement.

Homestead is accurate but it is already an old word now being primed again in adverts and whatnot, to be conceived of as something like dirty hippies living in relative poverty, if it isn't the hard starving life of early settlers who very much were homesteaders...and obviously, people are too poor or it's against some homestead (Amish Mafia?) code to have any fancy manufactured tools on the homestead. Even if it's a homestead with an internet cafe and a dance floor with a bangin sound system that all runs on wind and sunshine, calling it a 'homestead' won't help win new minds.

Ecological agriculture is decent and accurate, but it sounds too clinical.  Something for dorks and geeks and the academic type.  Feeding oneself may be the most fundamental and mandated form of creation and is most definitely for everyone.

Naturalist, that might work.  If it wasn't already so ambiguous and diverging.

Foxfire.  My favorite.  Leave it to a grade school class vote, they often do much better with PR and marketing than adults that have been through a lot of school.  Finding those books was the second thing that guided me down the ecological-agriculture-natural-productivity hobby, so I refer to the Foxfire projects to friends and family.  What do you mean Foxfire?  Oh, they are just some books about oldschool DIY methods (homesteading, if you will...) I say Foxfire even though hugelculture wasn't in any of my Foxfire books.  Even though the information that the word 'permaculture' has made available to me online, is currently directing most of my pursuits in this hobby.

I know I probably shouldn't be denying permaculture the lip service, but I can't help but roll my eyes at the word permaculture, or otherwise not want to say it.  Whereas I can hardly resist saying Foxfire.  FOXFIRE! Besides, if they really get into and try some of that Foxfire stuff, it's probably only a matter of time before google leads them to 'permaculture' and associates. 

One word from the manual that I haven't seemed to hear or read much, one that I think has some real potential; BIOCIDE.  It sounds so dangerous it's pretty much badass. It seems like it must be the basis of some villain's name somewhere in literature.  Biocidal-Free living seems to be a pretty specific and accurate term for permaculture. 

The mental inertia there will generally start with biology.  A word all but copy written and patented in academia, holy of holies the savior analytical science is regarded as in much of the English language culture today (generally irrelevant within the culture that it also conceived all the biocides and bombs and whatnot...)

So biology is a strong one in a good way I think. And then, cide, of pesti-herbi-fungicide, homicide, genocide, etc.  Those last 2 are some words that can really turn some heads and ears...people want to distance themselves from those cides, even if their reaction isn't energetic enough to get them to take a public stand against it.  That was a great move for the antibiocidal movement, to start referring to those things as herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.  Or did some Dupont scientist accidentally associate them with genocide?

Even if its a negative definition of the pursuit, I suspect the idea of 'biocide-free' or 'anti-biocidal' may get more traction or open minded consideration than permaculture will, maybe it's a viable label for when the critical mass of city folk force the law to recognize something more than organic.  Permaculture is fine and dandy within already established organizations, the good book's cover just about never makes any difference to the choir...just spitballin for anyone's consideration.   Just the opinion of an odd somewhat serious hobby gardener burying wood and seed tossing saved-seed polycultures among established perennials that would rather say Foxfire than permaculture.  Despite how much I've enjoyed all the permaculture internet videos and reading on this site...makes perfect sense I know. 
 
Tyler Ludens
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Posts: 9740
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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This might interest you, more thoughts about the meaning of the word "permaculture"  http://kennysideshow.blogspot.com/2008/05/agriculture-or-permaculture-why-words.html
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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Location: Virginia (zone 7)
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John,
Sorry you're not a fan of the word. I feel that the best PR is to be an example and share your knowledge with others, regardless of what the name is.

Seeing is believing and believing is seeing (for yourself). And, a rose by any other name...only smells like 'cide'.
 
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