When people think of an alternative or sustainable lifestyle, they either think of a life of scarcity or one that is unaffordable to them. That’s the notion permaculturist Simrit Malhi countered as she sat down with WorthWhile to give a peek into her abundant life, talking about permaculture as a philosophy that can be incorporated by anyone in any sphere of life and how sustainability does not mean scarcity.
Permaculture is a design philosophy. It’s based on three ethics – Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share which are further divided into 12 principles. Being a design philosophy, it can be applied to anything and people can have their own interpretations of it. My interpretation is to learn from nature and incorporate natural systems into our lives.
I went to an alternative boarding school in south India called Rishi Valley and then lived in Mumbai where I worked a few corporate jobs. I realised I don’t do well living in cities and decided to learn farming. My best friend’s dad was among the country’s first biodynamic farmers.
Biodynamic, organic, regenerative, rewilding are all different methods of farming. Permaculture is a system that designs where plants would be put, who would have access to them, how you would make money and what would be done with that money. It makes closed-loop systems which mimic the systems occurring in nature, as nothing goes to waste in a forest. You can have biodynamic or organic permaculture farms since the former is a method for growing crops and the latter is how space is designed so that crops are most efficiently utilised, closest to how they occur in nature.
The healthy work-life balance in such a life motivated me to take it up.
People see how my husband and I are bringing up our daughter and realise that it’s almost an abundant and luxurious life. They takeaway that ours is a good life, one that is possible for them too.
Another takeaway is that permaculture can be applied in any life or space or situation, as it’s also not limited to just growing plants. You can be a permaculturist and never grow a plant. You can live in a city and be a permaculturist.
It’s about inspiring people that even though the system is larger than you, you have a say in it, which can make a difference. People realise the choices they can make hold the power to make a difference.
The principles can be used anywhere. Take biodiversity for example. A forest has multiple species growing in it. If there’s a pest attack and an entire species of plants is wiped off, there are still other plant species for the animals to subsist off of and the ecosystem continues thriving. In the same way, if a person works multiple jobs in a city to have various sources of income, and they are to lose one of those jobs, they will still be taken care of through the other income they earn. That’s not to say that people should take on multiple jobs and make their own lives difficult, since the ethics are to care for people and the Earth, while ensuring everyone gets a fair share.
Permaculture requires examining everything from a zoomed out perspective. If someone works for a mining company and then spends their earnings on organic food, they’re still supporting exploitative and extractive practices and not making a difference.
I have not bought any new clothes in the last few years as I ‘shop’ from my friends’ clothes – the ones they want to part with. Being sustainable in that way becomes passing on an idea and that’s how one can make a difference.
People can choose where and from whom they buy food. In India, the money is in cities and the food is grown outside cities. You can grow food in cities on terraces and balconies. The people with space in cities are already rich. So we don’t want rich people to grow their own food in cities and not buy from poor farmers outside the city. To make it equitable, it would be better for them to ask restaurants if they have organic options, which will get restaurants to change their habits because customers are asking for them.
Being a design philosophy, you make a literal map for your space. You can design the space according to the sun path, notice the times of day the sun enters the apartment and from this you can make decisions like growing food or drying clothes in a space to not have to rely on electric dryers for clothes.
By looking at the space’s design, you evaluate what the problems are and notice where resources, like water, time, and energy, are getting wasted. With permaculture, you can make life more efficient. Being ecological or sustainable also means being more efficient.
It’s about showing people that this is a happier life. Money is the source of problems, tensions and pressures for people. It’s about realising that one can be happier spending less money than they are making more money
Permaculture is in its ethics fair share so it’s entirely anti-capitalistic. Permaculturists care more about the ethics of their behaviour rather than its legal or moral standpoint.
A permaculturist could break the concrete pavements in cities to plant flowers in the cracks. However, in a legal, urban design manner, it’s about creating public spaces that foster new connections between communities. People can grow food in public spaces, playschools can share parks with old age homes and hospices, and green spaces can be created in hospitals for doctors and patients.
Whatever choice you have, there’s a sustainable option for it. A big part of permaculture is free markets, where people exchange commodities, ideas and even feelings in a public space. Someone could get old clothes to give away, another some food they’ve grown on their terrace, a band could perform a new piece for a small audience or a writer can narrate their story for feedback and analysis with a public group. In these spaces, one realises that the connections and relationships forged are the real takeaway.
Simrit ended the chat with a novel way of viewing technology and how it’s intertwined with modern life in a way that’s true to the principles of permaculture.
“The internet and technology, like cryptocurrency and blockchain, which are open source, are permaculture in their way of thinking since there’s no gatekeeping. Technology is a necessity in daily life, and there’s a misnomer that to be sustainable, one needs to give up all abundance and live a life of near-penury. By working with the existing technology, people are able to advance knowledge and use that for the betterment of the planet. We need to remember that humans are as much a part of nature as any other being. So, we should not adopt the mindset that we need to deny ourselves things for the greater good. We are equally part of the greater good and so need to take care of ourselves just the same.”
Responding to the need of the hour, there are now permaculture design courses held in India throughout the year. I will be teaching an online course in September (2021) on Designing a Permaculture Lifestyle for those of us who cannot leave the city and move to a farm! I will also be teaching an exclusive, fully certified permaculture course over the Christmas holidays in December at a beautiful wildlife lodge in Kanha, Madhya Pradesh. You can find out more or get in touch on @roundstonekodi.