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'We Need To Return To A More Wholesome Existence': The Future of Permaculture With Robert Ashton

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'We Need To Return To A More Wholesome Existence': The Future of Permaculture With Robert Ashton

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As part of pebble’s Sea Change series on food and farming systems, we sat down with members of our Ripples community who are pioneering projects in these areas.

Meet permaculture expert, Robert Ashton.

Francesca Brooking

Wed 27 Apr 2022

Robert Ashton is a professional writer, social entrepreneur and public speaker. After working 10 years in agriculture, he became interested in the principles of permaculture.

Since then, he’s helped open community owned shops, written a book on social leaders and is currently building an earth-sheltered passive solar house that works in harmony with nature.

The Ripples by pebble community member shares what permaculture means to him, what the future of sustainable farming could look like and the plan for his energy-efficient home.

Man with a beard sitting in front of a log pile

Robert Ashton is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about sustainable living

What does permaculture mean to you?

To me, permaculture is all about living with, rather than fighting nature.

The recent pandemic has reminded us of our vulnerability and the fact that however much we like to think we are in control of our destiny, we are simply another species living on this planet.

To embrace permaculture is to be kind to the natural world and kind to each other.

How do you become interested in permaculture?

I went to agricultural college in the 1970s when crop yields were increasing in response to plant breeding, chemical weed control and the application of fertiliser.

After college, I worked for 10 years selling fertiliser to farmers and so was part of a system that rightly makes permaculturalists today shudder.

Researching a book I’ve just written about how rural life continues to change, I met regenerative farmers who have turned their backs on intensive monoculture and farm in similar ways to those their grandparents would recognise.

I also realised that low-input mixed farming could actually be more profitable, especially now that rocketing gas prices have more than doubled the price of nitrogen fertiliser. This I found hugely reassuring.

Sunshine on plants growing out of the gound
“To embrace permaculture is to be kind to the natural world and kind to each other”

How have you adopted permaculture principles into your life?

I am a Quaker, and so committed to living simply and sustainably. For the last few years, I’ve worked with social enterprises and charities, helping them find new ways to deliver support to vulnerable people.

I’ve also helped one community fund, build and open a community owned shop and café, which is situated within a now restored walled garden.

That, more than anything else I can think of, is a great example of just how people can come together to do permaculture.

What are the challenges beginners face? How do you overcome them?

I think the biggest barrier we all face is self-doubt. If you set out to do something different, for the right reasons and in the right way, others will be suspicious, even anxious and many will try to talk you out of what you are doing.

Pioneers need patience, persistence and to be persuasive, sticking to their guns and turning the other cheek.

Keep bouncing back from adversity and continue your journey, and in time others will follow.

Pioneers need patience, persistence and to be persuasive, sticking to their guns and turning the other cheek
A tractor on a field on a farm

Low-imput mixed farming could be more profitable than intensive monoculture

Do you have advice for anyone wanting to learn more about permaculture?

Permaculture is in many ways a lifestyle, so knowing where to start is important. I’d say don’t follow everything others do, but do be sure you know why you are making the changes you are.

I for example enjoy eating meat, and know that eating grass fed sheep and cattle is very different to eating animals that have been reared indoors and fed Brazilian soya meal.

Like it or not we are omnivores, so for me, eating grass reared beef is as much permaculture as growing vegetables in my garden.

What do you think the future of permaculture looks like?

The biggest problems facing the world today are population growth and climate change.

If we continue as we are, we will destroy ourselves, and while politicians might be uncomfortable with that, we at the grassroots have to accept that and show the way.

The sun for example, can provide all of our energy needs, so we need to stop extracting fossil fuels.

Growing food for animals and making bioethanol for cars from wheat also has to stop, and we need to return to a more wholesome existence.

This won’t happen overnight, or in my lifetime, but by 2200 I think the world will be a very different, far nicer, place to live.

Person planting in the earth surrounded by straw
“Keep bouncing back from adversity and continue your journey, and in time others will follow”

What’s Dial Corner about?

Too many people talk about permaculture, go on protests, write letters to the paper, then return home and turn up the gas fired central heating.

Dial Corner is an earth sheltered, hugely energy efficient dwelling that we hope to build, live in and show the world just how comfortably one can live without using fossil fuels.

Dial Corner will need no central heating, as it will be warmed by the sun. All the energy we use will be generated by solar panels and we will grow as much of what we eat as we can.

Dial Corner will be an example of what is called passive solar construction. It’s how people used to build 1,000 years ago, in homes with thick walls to retain heat and south-facing windows to let the sun's warmth into the building.

House plants growing with a white wall behind, a house that harmonises with nature

Dial Corner aims to show that you can live comfortably without fossil fuels

How can we take steps to ensure that our home harmonises with the environment?

That’s a tough one as of course most housing was built without giving a thought to energy efficiency.

Even today homes are being built with gas and oil fired central heating, and if you live in a house that’s even just 50 years old, your energy bills now will be making your eyes water.

I think back to when I was a child and everyone had an open coal fire in the living room, perhaps an electric fire mounted above the door in the bathroom, but no heating anywhere else at all.

Every winter I got chilblains on my feet. We have grown too used to heating empty rooms and wearing a tee-shirt indoors in mid-winter.

Today we have to strive for compromise. Improving insulation and upgrading heating controls can save energy and of course, driving less, buying less and eating better can all help too.

If we all do a little, we can collectively make a big difference.

Do you have any tips on how to get the wider community involved in permaculture projects?

The world is full of people peddling magic solutions to the world’s problems.

My advice would be to just get on with doing something yourself, and not making it a secret.

Pushing people towards permaculture will not change their behaviours; you need to let them see that you are living differently, sustainably and above all, happily.

Then they might just start to take their first steps in a similar direction!

Follow Robert Ashton's projects on his website.

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