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New Growth

Permies, a forum started by Paul Wheaton, is a walled garden for the greenthumbed.

I remember my first exposure to the once-perplexing notion that gardening could be cool. Some friends I met through a “Holistic Health” club I co-founded had decided to make a food forest in Compton. The phrase “food desert” had just entered my lexicon. It was 2014. Micronutrient density in store-bought foods was (and still is) at an all-time low.

We built some massive hügelkulturs that would be able to support an impressive variety of home-grown food for the surrounding community. The project was straightforward: bury some wood. Cover it in fertilizer and soil. Set some seeds loose. Add water. Wait a few months, and voila! Food!

It felt subversive. The ethos here is born of a desire to break out from under the yoke of dependence on a food system that does not care for the health of those it fed. And something as simple as gardening was a way to do something about it. What could be better than to become self-sufficient, enjoy time outside working with your hands, and save a little money along the way?

Set away from the polarization and chaos of less focused platforms, Permies is more than just a forum for enthusiasts to discuss gardening. It’s a place where philosophies of independence are transmuted into action and community.

Mason: What is the origin story of Permies?

Paul: I think it was 1995, the internet was kind of taking off. And I wanted to learn how to make a website. So I took an article I’d written about Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy and massaged it to feel like a webpage. So for years I had the only article about lawn care on the internet. I started adding more articles with it about different things and I got a little worn out on answering everybody’s questions through email. A lot of the questions were the same. So I set up some forums. And that’s what really took off. So it just kind of grew and grew and grew. I just needed to answer people’s questions.

In my book, Building a Better World in Your Backyard, I try to advocate to people about passive income streams, like get passive income and then do a little bit of that each week. And then maybe after a year or two, you can quit your working job because the amount of money that’s coming in is more than your expenses. Something like that. So this is part of what I have to get. But then people kind of are like, okay, what do I do to get myself some passive income right now? And my answer is step one, don’t say right now.

Step two, give stuff away. Give everything away. Give it all away openly, freely, just give it away, help people. And then later you’ll have all the stuff that you’ve given away and then you’ll be like, how can I monetize this? Because I have all this stuff that I’ve given away for free. But maybe I’ll not give it all away for free. Maybe I’ll take two pieces, monetize it or something. Because that way it’s like, what is the thing? What’s a great way to monetize it now as opposed to when you made it? There might not have been a clear way to do that. And then you’re like because once you start kind of trying to help people, but you’re like, I’m going to make money or whatever, I want to charge them or whatever, it’s like I don’t think that ever really works.

So anyway, Permies kind of was this whole thing where it was like just helping people for free. I set up the software, I paid for the site, I paid for the hosting, and then it got big and then the costs went up and I kept paying for it. And then eventually I would find a way to monetize a bit here and a bit there. And as the years passed, changing the way things are monetized, at some point we started doing Kickstarters. And then that creates an artifact which can be sold during the Kickstarter and sold after the Kickstarter.

Mason: Why permaculture?

Paul: Well, I think permaculture is a great word because under the permaculture umbrella comes a bunch of stuff. It’s about being way beyond organic gardening. And gardening is how I came to it and I think gardening is how most people come to it. I think the coolest things are happening under the permaculture umbrella. Under the Permaculture umbrella is natural building and alternative energy. I do a lot of roundwood timber framing. So there’s all these bits in foraging that would fall under permaculture as well. Before creating Permies, I would go out on the internet and try to talk to people about hügelkultur and I would get a lot of unkind words about hügelkultur.

Mason: What was the unkindness about?

Paul: Basically if you talk about on certain sites, I would go and I would talk about this thing I want to do which is called hügelkultur. And then the message was kind of like if you’re not using Roundup, you’re doing it wrong. And then they would push values onto me that I don’t want. Like “You can’t farm if you’re not using Roundup. There’s just no possible way to make any money at it.” And so I tried to explain for the 7th time, “I’m not trying to farm, I’m trying to garden, and I’m not trying to make any money. I’m trying to feed myself.” And it’s like there’s that on other sites, as I would try to talk about hügelkultur then I would get this pushback of like because I’m an American, I’m obviously a fucking idiot and therefore not worth talking to.

Mason: It’s strange that people would cause drama, pick up pitchforks, so to speak, in communities like this.

Paul: In fact, there was an incident in Portland, Oregon that led to a lot of stuff on how I approached even the book, building a better World in your Backyard instead of being angry at bad guys. There’s several sections in there. In fact, there’s a chapter in there that starts off telling the story of a woman who wrote for the daily paper in Portland, Oregon. And she had a column called something like going Green or something like that. And after a year, she said she had to resign because of the death threats.

Mason: Death threats were brought up over a spread called Going Green…?

Paul: Well, actually, I mean, this kind of thing… this is really common. She was saying, “Okay, this week I’m doing this thing and I’m trying this thing, and somebody suggest this, I like that, so I’m doing that.” Then people would write to her and say, “You’re doing it all wrong.” And then she’d be like, “I don’t think so.” She did it the other way. So then that person that would start sending the death threats. There are people who feel so passionately about going green and going green their way, especially if you’ve got any kind of media following or media. It’s like, wow, it is intense. It is bizarrely intense.

It boils down to environmentalism versus environmentalism. Different people have different values of environmentalism, and they have different ideas what it means, and then those ideas will conflict. Oftentimes a human being will point at another and say obey or else, and that’s where the system starts to fall apart.

Mason: But Permies is a little bit of an oasis away from this, right? It’s moderated. You have your own community that’s managed in a sort of non-death threaty sort of way?

Paul: Ah, well no. We get death threats. 

Mason: I’d like to just ask you a couple of questions about what you think is important about permaculture and appropriate technology generally.

Paul: Even before you ask a question, if you’re going to say appropriate technology, there’s all this stuff happening all over the place where people are about to get into a lot of trouble about heat. I think I read something yesterday that said that people in England who pay $2,000 a year for natural gas heat are now going to be paying something like $22,000.

So I’ve got different approaches to heat. But the first one is where a person heats themselves instead of the whole house. And I believe you can cut more than 90% off of your heat bill by doing that. I think it’s pretty simple. There are more efficient forms of heat than the convective heat that most people use. And so convective heat is actually the least efficient form of heat. Radiant heat and conductive heaters are far more efficient. But the thing I propose is if you have a desk where you work, then you’d have a dog bed heater at your feet. I now have a heated mat where my keyboard and mouse go, and I continue to have the little incandescent light bulb over my head. 

Now here in the United States, the incandescent light bulb has been banned. And so it’s been a very slippery, sneaky thing that has been done to make it so it is illegal to sell. And all the laws that were passed were all for the benefit of the light bulb manufacturers. But the bottom line is that the light bulb manufacturers make more money selling compact fluorescent lamp bulbs (CFLs). But what they ended up doing was that they got so many subsidies for the CFLs that they actually were making something like 20 some dollars per bulb because of this mountain of subsidies coming to them. I made a video about this.

Mason: Do you think this reflects a broader trend in the way that we look at sustainability and sort of energy efficiency and green technologies?

Paul: I do think there is a mountain of dirty happening under the name of “green.” It’s so hard to tell sometimes. I used to buy the CFLs. And then I used to buy the LEDs, and then you find out what next thing is and you say “Wow, that sounds like it’s really good for the environment.” Right, but is it? And so the big thing I push for unraveling quite a bit, the funny thing, is that incandescent lights, used well, especially in a place that gets cold in the wintertime, will reduce your electric bill. 

Mason: Interesting, right. Because it serves this dual purpose.

Paul: Yeah. And it’s like, oh, no, the light bulb is so far away, I’m not getting any heat from it. And so that should be a clue right there that you’re using it wrong.

Anatomy of a rocket mass heater

However, I think the big thing I push for is the rocket mass heater, and it is a wood-burning device, and actually, the first place to ever get it passed into code is Portland, Oregon.

So it’s like, when we’re talking about these people that are over in England and they’re going to be facing $22,000 heat bills, it’s kind of like, oh, hey, I’ve got a tip for you. Now, the thing is that the micro heaters, that is something that’s going to make it so that you can heat with less, you can be comfortable and dramatically reduce your heat bill. It is true, but the rocket mass heater will take you even further. But of course, you got to build a thing, and it kind of gets into this space of, like, a lot of people come tell me, like, oh, I’m a renter, I can’t do it.

Or they start talking about codes and insurance companies and things of that nature. And my response to all of that is like, hey, if the government or your landlord or whatever says, don’t do it, then I need you to not do it. I need you to treat a rocket mass heater exactly the same way that you treated pot. Nobody used pot. When the government said no, of course don’t do it, nobody used it. And when their landlord said don’t, nobody did. Nobody touched the stuff as long as anybody said, don’t do it.

Mason: Do you think a solution to the food shortages that were a real concern over the summer could be supplementing your  groceries with a garden?

I think it can be. In fact, I have a video on YouTube that basically explores the question, “How many calories can one grow on an acre?”

I’m going to say that if the food thing gets really scary, I’d like to encourage people to at least start booking up on gardening. Because I think it’s the lack of knowledge that has kept the people that are like, they did not grow a garden this year. I think a big part that kept them from growing a garden this year was lack of knowledge.

There’s a couple that I interviewed as part of that and they were living in Portland, Oregon. They had like a quarter of an acre lot, and basically the conclusion that we came to is on their quarter acre lot in Portland, Oregon. So it’s pretty much a standard lot that after five years of romancing that acre or that plot for permaculture, that they would be able to raise enough food to feed one small person.

But yes, I think the focus needs to be on calories, and I think that when food starts to run low, calories is where people are going to be focusing. But this is a good time to point out something that this guy pointed out in Portland, Oregon, the crop that grows the most calories per acre is sunchokes.

And you don’t have to really care for it. You just kind of ignore it. And then when the time comes, it’s like, I’m hungry, and the food at the store is expensive. What have I got here? Get a shovel. Go get some.

Mason: That’s brilliant. I’ve heard that half of Russia’s calories come from small-scale community gardens.

Mason: So sustainability is sort of a buzzword at this point. Do you think sustainable has kind of become overused and like too much of a buzzword to become meaningful? Should it be kind of reclaimed? And if you do think it has lost meaning, what remains in the proverbial box of sustainability that should be kept?

Paul: First of all, the word sustainable means barely not dead. I feel like when we whip out the word “sustainable,” it seems like we’re talking to somebody about being naughty and that gets into a space where it’s like… I don’t know if I want to play in that. 

I don’t like telling anybody what to do. What I like to do, and that’s interesting too, is like with my book, Building a Better World, nothing in there is about sacrifice. Everything in that book is all about stuff that either adds luxury to your life or adds coin to your pocket. And so when you start throwing around the word sustainable, then it kind of seems like you’re trying to shame somebody. I’d rather talk about hügelkultur and apple seeds and rocket mass heaters. I’d much rather try to talk about building good solutions. Let’s do things that make a real, real difference. 

Mason: And build a community around it too. Because at the end of the day, that’s really what matters, right?

Paul: I think some people are bound and determined to be miserable the rest of their lives. And they get to do that if they want. I also think that there’s a lot of people that would really like to be in community. Unfortunately, our current recipes for intentional community are really flawed. So Diana Leafe Christian is the premier author on community stuff. And when I took a workshop from her in 2005, she said 90% of attempts at intentional community fail. And recently, a few months ago, I saw her speak, and now the number is 95%. And I feel like we need a new community recipe, and I’ve been working on that. Weird thing is, I wrote a draft book a couple of years ago, and I gave it away as part of a Kickstarter. And now I get more questions about that draft book about community than any of my other stuff. And I kind of feel like I’ve got actually published books that are pretty interesting, you know.

I think to a bit I mean, the big thing about community not working is the drama. Yeah. And where does it come from? And why and now that we get here, and how do we, how do we bring people together and turn the drama knob from 11? And if we can solve the drama problem, I think the benefits of community are profound. And when we’re talking about the environment, then pretty much your overall environmental footprint is cut in half when you live in community and your luxury is doubled along the way. And your personal cost is also cut in half. 

Lots more where that came from.