Redesigning Civilization: Permaculture’s Vision for a Just and Sustainable World

by Hero Ashman

In early February, just under a hundred of us gathered to hear Toby Hemenway lecture on permaculture, it’s development and why it is a necessary part of our vision of a new world. Hemenway is a renowned permaculture and ecology expert and authored the book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture – the world’s bestselling book on permaculture for eight years running.

What is Permaculture?
Redesigning Civlization

Permaculture is an ecological design approach that offers powerful tools for the design of regenerative, fair ways to provide food, energy, livelihood, and other needs while letting humans share the planet with the rest of nature.

How did Permaculture Develop?
To set the scene, Hemenway first gave a comprehensive anthropological narrative of how cultures had developed based on how they collected their food. He broke down the three types of cultures in the following categories:

  1. Foragers and hunter gathers: these were the first types of societies and depended on primitive tools to feed themselves or close communities

  1. Horticultural: this was a brief period of time and marks a transition between the two other stages; horticulturalists cultivate land but on a small scale and grow what is available

  1. Agriculture: the vast number of societies today are agrarian; they depend upon pastoral production and industrialized means to grow, harvest and distribute crops en masse

How did we become an Agrarian Society?
Hemenway explained that there are competing theories as to why we became an agrarian society. The first is that life was going well until we started to use up too much of our resources and were forced into more ‘efficient’ means of production. The second is that we were doing alright until the climate started getting colder. Both of these narratives rely on the idea that scarcity led to an intensification of the food production process. However, Hemenway suggests that viewing the world through the lens of scarcity has led us to become less, not more, sustainable in our use of nature.

What are the Problems with Agriculture?
Hemenway stressed the idea that agriculture is equivalent to the domestication of the human species. It creates a dichotomy between wild vs. tame, which prevents humans from working as a part of nature – instead we try to harness nature for our own terms. This has happened through the spread of agriculture and Hemenway elaborated on the structures and consequences that accompany an agrarian society:

  • Grain agriculture (agriculture dependent on grain crops such as corn, oats and wheat) requires a hierarchical system in order to maintain it, which creates inequality in wealth and power.

  • It leaves a larger ecological footprint.

  • Despite our mass production of food, many societies go through cycles of famine

According to Hemenway, the world created by agrarian societies is unhealthy, unequal and makes us afraid of scarcity. Many in the audience agreed that this was an unsustainable future, but it is challenging to imagine a system different to the one we know and rely on.

Permaculture as the Alternative!
After the doom and gloom of the first part of the lecture, Hemenway raised the spirits of the hall by offering an alternative: permaculture. He described permaculture as a new type of horticulture, where people work with, rather than against, nature in order to tend to plants that in turn provide us with food. The ethics of permaculture asks three important questions of designed ecological systems:

  1. Will this care for the earth?

  2. Is it just and will it care for people?

  3. How we return or redistribute the surplus that may be produced?

The emphasis on sustainability and minimizing our impact on nature means that another important question to ask is when to do things where? Hemenway explained that we need to build up local economies that respond to local conditions. He illustrated the places we can look for produce in a diagram similar to the one here.

People in the audience were convinced by Hemenway’s conclusion that alternatives to the food structures we have in place now need to be created. Several audience members questioned the scalability of permaculture projects, especially in countries suffering from a severe lack of food. Others made connections between permaculture projects and movements for deeper democracy and greater levels of civic engagement. The night ended on a high note and neighbours were encouraged to attend Hemenway’s permaculture workshop at the Boston Food Forest.

Next Steps
For more information on Toby Hemenway’s work you can visit his website. You can also visit the websites of some of the successful permaculture projects that Hemenway mentioned in his talk:


State of Our Neighborhood 2015: Snowy!

Snowmen for saleIf you haven’t bought yours already this season, the Jamaica Plain Forum and JP New Economy Transition are selling unassembled snowmen complete with button eyes and carrot noses … Just kidding …

We hope you are all staying warm out there. If you need help shoveling, let us know by replying to this email and we will post your information on our social media. Now is the time for neighbors to come together.

Speaking of coming together, for each of the past four years, over 350 neighbors have come together at the annual State of Our Neighborhood forum, a community conversation about JP today and the neighborhood we envision in the future. Join us again this year on February 26th at 6pm, to lift your spirits out of the winter blues, as we gather together for this meaningful conversation.

Come participate and show your support for policies that advance racial equity through housing justice. Help us strengthen grassroots democratic processes in Jamaica Plain and Boston.

P.S. Check out our op-ed in the JP Gazette if you missed it.

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Cooperatives Event POSTPONED! Burning (Snow) Man Party at Doyle’s Cafe Instead

The Jamaica Plain Forum event “Cutting Edge Cooperatives” scheduled for Thursday, 2/12 is POSTPONED until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

Instead join us for a party to chase away those winter blues!

Burning (Snow) Man:  A Meet-up Celebration of the Good, Bad, & Ugly of Too Much Snow

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Thursday, February 12th, 6-8pm
Doyle’s Cafe, Backroom, 3484 Washington Street (map)
RSVP on Facebook  

Feeling overwhelmed? Elated? Defeated? Have you met new neighbors? Have you come to dislike your neighbors? How are you surviving?

Somehow make your way to the Back Room at Doyles Café for a “beat the winter blues” meet-up. Have a drink. We will provide the first 5 pizzas.

Mini-Story Slam: Come with a 1-2 min story about the good, charitable, ugly, selfish, deplorable, and inspiring aspects of the four plus feet of snow.

Other Possibilities: Share a song! Bring snow to burn. Meet more neighbors. Ask ourselves: Is there more we can be doing to strengthen our community in this trying time? Organize a shovel brigade to clear a dangerous intersection! Lobby for more resources for transit! Find someone new to complain to!

Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition ( is working to build community resilience in the face of ecological and economic change.

Should Pilgrim Nuclear Plant Close?

by Hero Ashman and Tracy Bindel

Not an Energy Issue but a Public Safety Issue
The Jamaica Plain Forum hosted Diane Turco and the Cape Downwinders, Dick Clapp and local JP residents and activists for a lively discussion on the perils of the Pilgrim Nuclear power plant in Plymouth, MA. Speakers emphasized the threat to public health and safety that the Pilgrim Nuclear poses to residents living as far away as Boston. Local public health expert, Dr. Dick Clapp expounded on the detrimental health consequences of living near a nuclear power plant, reminding the audience nuclear health risks are not just in the event of an accident at the plan. There is statistically significant data showing that people living near a nuclear power plant are more likely to have leukemia and thyroid cancer.

No Safe Storage for Spent Fuel Rods
Dick ClappThe Pilgrim plant, which was built in 1972, has the same design as the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, a GE Mark I boiling water reactor. A primary concern is the spent fuel pool.  Originally designed to temporarily hold 880 spent fuel assemblies, with no federal repository as planned, the license was amended to accommodate the nuclear industry. The Pilgrim pool, outside the main containment area in the attic of the building, now holds over 3,200 assemblies, four times more than the original design. Dr. Gordon Thompson completed a study for the AGO in 2006 which determined that the densely packed re-racked fuel is dangerous.  A spontaneous fire could occur with resulting damage of 24,000 latent cancers, $488 million in damages, and hundreds of miles downwind contaminated. Entergy is currently moving fuel from the pool so they can refuel this spring. According to Pilgrim Watch, an organization aiming to increase public awareness of issues pertaining to the nuclear plant, there is a high risk that the casks could crack and there is currently no system in place to adequately monitor the canisters.

Yankee Plant Closes, Leading the WayDiane Turco
In December 2014, the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vermont was closed down, despite its operating license having been renewed for a further 20 years. Although the plant was closed for economic reasons, protests against the plant had been increasing since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and groups such as Cape Downwinders are hopeful that the anti-nuclear momentum can be directed towards Massachusetts’ only nuclear plant. The Pilgrim Plant’s original operating license expired in 2012, but Entergy, the energy company who operates the plant, successfully received the license renewal by the Nuclear Regulator Commission for twenty more years in May 2013. This was despite the objections of then Governor Deval Patrick, who requested the NRC withhold relicensing so public health and safety concerns could be addressed. Diane Turco and the Cape Downwinders are leading the campaign to have the license revoked before it expires.

There is currently support in the state government by Cape Cod Senator Dan Wolf and Representative Sarah Peak to shut down Pilgrim.  While only the NRC has the authority to close a nuclear reactor, our legislators have introduced bills to address economic and public safety concerns. Organizers continue to stress the importance of writing to local newspapers, calling the state house, and getting the word out to neighbors about the issue to demand that elected officials take action through state legislation.

During the question and answer session several people spoke about the media blackout that followed the Fukushima disaster and the lack of willingness of the press to run stories on the nuclear plant. The health risks were elaborated on and one participant explained that in her hometown the construction of a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (a site licensed to permanently dispose of radioactive waste) had lead to the prevalence of thyroid problems in local residents. A couple of audience members raised the question of alternative energy and wondered whether, if better regulated, nuclear energy could be utilized as a form of green energy. Diane stressed that the current issue of nuclear power was one of safety and not energy, but regardless, nuclear energy in the form we use it now is not a “green” alternative.    

Next Steps
Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 3.05.53 PMDiscussions over what steps to take next continued after the event had ended and there was consensus that more people in JP and the greater Boston area needed to be better informed as to the risks caused by Pilgrim. If you would like to find out more information on the Cape Downwinders you can visit their website, which includes learning resources and information on upcoming events. You can also visit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s site to see their plan for the Emergency Planning Zones. For more information check out the Pilgrim Coalition or the Pilgrim Watch.

To arrange for an educational program for your community to learn more about the threat from Pilgrim and what you can do,  please contact Diane at

This event was co-sponsored by Co-op Power, a multi-class, multi-racial movement for a sustainable and just energy future.

Toby Hemenway is coming to town!

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 11.31.14 AMToby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, will be speaking at the JP Forum about Redesigning Civilization on 2/5 at 7pm.

“The world didn’t come with an operating manual, so it’s a good thing that some wise people have from time to time written them. Gaia’s Garden is one of the more important, a book that will be absolutely necessary in the world ahead.”

—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and Hope, Human and Wild

For more details check out the event listing on our events page.