Graham Burnett is vegan and a permaculturist. He writes booklets and holds courses on permaculture. He runs Land & Liberty, through which he sells permaculture booklets, T-shirts and posters. Interview by John Curtis.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture is a way of life. It shows us how to make the most of our resources by minimising waste and maximising potential. But living ecologically and sustainably doesn't mean giving everything up, it means relearning the value of nature, to understand new ways of being wealthy. Permaculture methods can be applied now, whether you are gardening, doing the shopping, looking after kids, going to work or building your own home. Permaculture is not about getting away from it all – it's about taking control of our lives, our individual needs and our common future.
Permaculture is a relatively new idea, the word being coined about 30 years ago. People in the UK began to grasp onto it around 1982.
People care features strongly in the UK permaculture movement. Perhaps this is because in Australia where permaculture originated, there's lots of land but not many people. Here it's the opposite – we tend to live on top of each other, so community care features more strongly.
Permaculture borrows from the environmentalist three R's phrase: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Permaculture also adds a fourth: Re-think – designing systems that use less energy in the first place.
How does permaculture differ from organic farming?
Permaculture is a complete design system. It includes many elements, for example architecture, agro-forestry, green economics, land design, design of cities, and intelligent design of the countryside. It integrates them, bringing them all together holistically rather than separating them.
Organic farming tends to look at farming in isolation. Organic farming is a good thing – a progression from industrialised farming, but is only one part of creating systems for good food and good living. Many other aspects of how we live are not very earth friendly, eg, transport, buildings, health care. A lot of organic farming systems aren't that different from conventional systems – they are still dominating rather than working with nature, which is what permaculture is all about.
Organic farming is a growth sector but is very economics led, so is quite limited. Soil Association standards are very black and white, you're either organic or not, there's no middle ground. Yet there's a two or three year conversion period from conventional to organic. We need a half-way house. Permaculture groups are discussing permaculture standards – earth friendly food production but which doesn't necessarily conform to Soil Association standards.
Is the distinction that permaculture is a hobby, whereas organic farming is a profession?
No. Many people are making a living from permaculture practices. A lot of people are applying permaculture to their own land, and there are many small businesses that follow permaculture principles and ethics.
What are 'Zones' in permaculture design?
Permaculture introduces the concept of 'zones', the closest to the home being where human activity and need for attention is most concentrated, and the furthest where there is no need for intervention at all. Zone 0 is in the home, where you could implement energy-efficient cooking and storage of food, and design an ergonomic kitchen layout. Zone 1 is the part of your back garden near the back door, where you put your compost bin and also grow frequently-used crops such as salad leaves. Zone 2 is further into your back garden which needs slightly less attention, where you might grow fruit bushes and trees. Zone 3 is further away still, perhaps an allotment where you could grow root crops that need even less attention. Zone 4 is semi-wild, for example coppice managed woodland used for forage and gathering other wild foods and timber, whilst zone 5 is the wilderness, where there is no human intervention apart from the observation of natural eco-systems and cycles.
Can a person be a permaculturist without being involved in growing?
Yes. The permaculture design principles and ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares apply to any aspect of being human.
You've explained the theory. Could you give some practical examples?
In run-down urban towns or inner cities or even in the country, starting LETS systems (Local Exchange Trading Systems, which enables people to share skills and goods on a local level using a local currency rather than sterling), organic allotments & community gardens are good examples of self-help.
Permaculture is also about turning problems into solutions. A while ago I had ugly piles of rubble and top-soil at opposite ends of the garden. So I brought them together to make a beautiful herb spiral. Other practical small steps might be to sprout beans in your kitchen or recycle waste.
When and why did you go vegan?
I went vegetarian in 1977 because I didn't like the taste or texture of meat. I later became more aware of animal cruelty and the practices used in dairy farming, and went vegan in 1984. I also became involved in animal rights, including hunt sabbing, around this time.
How does veganism fit in with permaculture?
Permaculture abhors factory farming, the way milk and eggs are produced on a massive level, but many permaculturists do keep goats and livestock. This is one of the healthy debates in permaculture, and vegans are not a lone voice. Catering at permaculture events tends to be vegan oriented. Lots of veggie/vegan permaculture events are advertised in Permaculture magazine, and in vegan magazines too. There's a lot of tolerance in permaculture towards vegans from non-vegans and vice versa. Both camps respect one another. There's quite a diversity of views.
Veganism seems to be more widespread in the UK permaculture movement than it is in other countries. It does seem to be one of the directions we've taken over here.
In what ways do you try to encourage veganism in permaculture?
I give the vegan perspective in my books and articles but try to remain non-judgemental. People can make up their own minds. When running courses I do try to be non-biased. My forthcoming book is a vegan permaculture recipe book. I also wrote an article in Permaculture magazine a while ago, about how I try to put permaculture concepts into my everyday life, one of which for me is being vegan, since it reduces my ecological footprint. This was a little controversial to some readers, but I also received a lot of support for what I was saying.
Does permaculture emphasise self-sufficiency?
More self-reliance than self-sufficiency. Self sufficiency to me conjures up an image of rugged individualism, someone slightly right-wing and survivalist. You would have to do all of your own building and grow all of your food, etc. But what if you're ill? Self-reliance is where you rely on yourself but you have a network of people to help you out – the group itself aims to be self-sufficient. In the UK, permaculturists tend to be more interested in networking than just looking after themselves. To me, that's about the people-care side of permaculture.
Tell me about Land and Liberty, the organisation that you run.
I've been doing punk fanzines since the late 70s. I started Land and Liberty (www.spiralseed.co.uk) in the early 90s with the first booklet that I wrote: "Well Fed not an Animal Dead". I used Land and Liberty as a distribution for the booklet. Things died a death after a while, but then I wrote the "Permaculture for Beginners" guide, which resurrected Land and Liberty. The name comes from a book by Ricardo Magon that I read on the Mexican revolution which was called "Tierra y Libertad", which translates to Land and Liberty. I'm in the process of changing the name to Spiral Seed since there's another organisation called Land and Liberty and this causes confusion. The spiral figures a lot in permaculture – the spiral pattern occurs in galaxies, shells, and in the leaf formation of some plants. Seed emphasises the potential of future.
We also have T-shirts. They are made by Sunrise Screenprint www.menmuir.org.uk/sunrise, Tel: 01356 660430. This co-operative is vegan, environmental, and use non-bleached organic, fair trade materials. Their prices are reasonable, they are reliable, and they can do designs or you can supply your own designs. I strongly recommend them to groups that need T-shirts printed.
I also strongly recommend Footprint Workers Co-op in Leeds. www.footprinters.co.uk, Tel: 0113 262 4408. They do my printing. They are very reasonably priced, very ethically based, all paper is re-cycled, and they use eco-friendly inks.
When did you start your permaculture courses?
The courses are run by Ron Bates and me. The first one was a 2-day course in 1998, through the local LETS scheme, which fitted well with the essence of permaculture. We later ran a Vegan Organic course in Southend.
I gained a diploma in permaculture in September 2001, and last year we ran two permaculture courses at Dial House in Essex – one in May and one in August. The one in August was less well attended, and people have since advised us not to run a course in August since many people are on holiday.
I hear that you have a few allotments.
I've got a back garden and three allotments. Two of the allotments are for vegetables. I'm the secretary of my allotment committee, which is ironic since for years I was told off by the committee for having too many weeds! Things are changing though. The out-dated image of allotments came from the war and post war period. There's now a younger energy coming in. My third allotment is in Leigh, three miles away, committed to creating a forest garden with fruit bushes, apple trees, etc.
Do you dig?
I dig a bit but keep it to a minimum. Digging does have some benefit since I have heavy clay soil and bindweed infestation. Digging is just one option of many.
You've got lots of things on – three allotments, a garden Land & Liberty, Permaculture, courses, a job and children. How do you fit everything in?
My kids and partner are a bit interested, although not in gardening. We are an all-vegan family, living as environmentally as practical. I try to keep things balanced. My partner is a child minder. I'm a day centre officer for adults with learning disabilities.
Any future plans?
I'm writing a permaculture cookbook, with vegan recipes and articles about permaculture. All my previous booklets I've published myself, but this will hopefully be published by Permanent Publications, the publishers of Permaculture magazine. They are supportive of the vegan ideals – they take lots of copies of my "Well Fed not an Animal Dead" booklet.
Our thanks to Graham Burnett for the interview, and for telling us about Footprint Workers Co-op who print some of Graham's materials, and who now print Vegan Views magazine.
Graham and Ron Bates hold regular permaculture courses – see their website at www.spiralseed.co.uk for details.
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