Originally published on the Sustaining Time blog, part of an AHRC funded project which asks the question: What would be the time of a sustainable economy?London Permaculture (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Another organisation I’ve visited recently is Lammas, a planned low-impact eco-village in North Pembrokeshire. I attended the recent Low Impact Experience week run by Hoppi Wimbush and also interviewed some of the villagers and volunteers. There are lots of notes and interview transcripts to go through, but I wanted to share some initial observations about possible links between permaculture and developing a more critical relationship to time. As Chris Warburton-Brown from the Permaculture Association has pointed out, “unlike other finite resources that are in short supply in post-industrial society, most of us in the environmental movement have not yet formulated much response to the shortage of time we often experience”. So one of the questions we wanted to look at in this research project is, if permaculture is a design system for working with finite resources in a sustainable way, how might it help us with our widespread feelings of time pressure?
One really interesting issue that came up in conversations about time and permaculture while I was at Lammas related to the idea of zoning. In fact this issue arose as part of a discussion about how permaculture was more obviously about space than about time. That is, seeing permaculture as a way of designing space seemed most obvious and intuitive. Zoning, of course, provides a perfect example of this. This is the technique of locating plants, animals and other features based on how often you interact with them. So trees for coppicing would be planted further away than herbs which might be used daily in cooking. On the other hand, you could also argue that zoning is also a way of designing time. It minimises wasted time, for example, by ensuring that you don’t have to walk right to the back of your garden every time you want a sprig of mint. But more than that, zoning seems to involve judgements about which rhythms you need to be most aware of and which you can pay less attention to.
I couldn't help thinking it would be really interesting to explore how these kinds of decisions are made. What kinds of conflicts arise in the process? What happens when a rhythm or cycle that you thought you didn’t need to be so aware of (and so placed further away) actually starts becoming more important? Does explicitly considering the differing cycles involved in your work processes (e.g. once a day for compost or once a decade for coppicing) create a more sophisticated and multi-layered sense of time? How might this kind of decision making process be used in daily life to manage the differing rhythms of work, family, volunteering, friends, leisure etc? I think it’s really intriguing to try to think of clocks as devices for zoning time. That is, they bring some rhythms closer to our daily attention while backgrounding others (see my paper on this [PDF]. My favourite example of this is the way that a clock can generally tell me whether I’m late for the bus, but not whether we are too late to mitigate climate change. One might say that in this case the bus seems to be included in Zone 1 (nearest to 'the house'), while the climate is in Zone 5 (in the ‘wilderness’). This is of course a real problem, so how might we zone time differently if we paid closer attention to permaculture ethics and principles when we designed our clocks?
Another issue that we discussed was stacking, where a permaculture designer aims for multiple outputs from a single process or space. So rather than planting an area with only one crop, you layer it with useful ground-cover, shrubs and trees. Again, in a way this seems to be about a more complex approach to space, rather than industrial agriculture where one field = one crop. But might this also work as a method of more sustainable time management? I thought initially that this might mean trying to do multiple things at the same time, although this can often lead to the dreaded stress-inducing need to ‘multitask’. So perhaps it can be more about designing your work so that a single process provides multiple benefits at the same time? Here the more general aim of reducing the amount of labour required to grow food through attentive design (e.g. Fukuoka’s Do-Nothing Farming) is also important.
Finally, in the organisations I’ve visited so far, the issue of how to negotiate the way time, money and value have been inter-weaved within capitalist systems is coming up as a central issue (see this previous post). Many people are reducing the time they spent in waged jobs in order to use this ‘free’ time to develop businesses based on non-capitalist models. The impact of opportunity costs, particularly loss of monetary income, are weighed up against increased meaningfulness of their work and knowing that they are contributing to developing more sustainable ways of life. Those making these decisions still have to deal with the weight of others’ expectations and sometimes their own conflicting feelings about their choices. It seemed that the permaculture approach to accepting reductions in outputs from a single source in order to have a net increase in benefits might be an interesting way of thinking through this dilemma. For example rather than maximising wheat production over all else as we see in monoculture farming, a permaculture farm might produce smaller amounts so that other useful crops can be enjoyed as well. In the case of those moving away from maximising income, there seems to be an effort to move towards a more diversified understanding of value creation, where time might sometimes ‘produce’ money, but might also be used to grow free local food, to build community, to enhance one’s skills or just to enjoy life more. Thus reducing the production of one 'crop' in order to enjoy others more.
So these are just a few thoughts from the work so far. I’m sure some of them have already been explored in permaculture literatures and practises and so I'd be really grateful comments or recommendations.