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Living Harmoniously With Nature

By Gan Ruyu

Imagine this: Our Earth has run out of fossil fuels, all planes stop flying, all cars stop running. How are we going to get our food?

Nope, you can’t walk or cycle to the nearest supermarket. There’s no car, no truck, no train, no ship – that means no butter from England, no milk from New Zealand, no beef from Australia, no cabbage from China, no rice from Thailand, no McDonald’s, no KFC, no Burger King! (But I’ll actually give three thunderous cheers to the disappearance of the latter three!)

That was one of the many other questions that started to demand more serious attention from me when I took a Permaculture Design Certificate course in Australia last year. My motivation for taking the course was simple (or so I thought): I wanted to learn to do something for Mother Earth in response to the pollution and damage that we’re causing her. Never did I realize the 14-day course would open my awareness to a wide range of global issues, which I had been too complacent to think about.

Just like any other ordinary person leading a relatively comfortable life in a safe country, it never struck me that we could run out of oil one day and the resulting chain effect could practically cripple the whole world. At this point, there’re still many out there who may think, “Oh it won’t happen that soon. We’ll be fine.”

Oil is a finite and non-renewable resource while our global demand for oil is on an ever-increasing scale. Some experts are already pointing out that by as early as 2010, the world as a whole will face peak oil – total oil production in the world will peak and then go into decline. The more optimistic experts say we have another 20 years. That doesn’t sound very promising either.

When global peak oil happens, transport will be among the fist that gets hit. Conventional agriculture and processed food, among many other things in this industrialized world, will be affected – the productions of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, plastics, our daily used appliances, etc. – are all heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels. Unless we start changing the way we live and consume, we will fall right into the graves that we ourselves are digging.


When USA faced its peak in oil production in 1970s, it drew international attention. It was during this crisis that two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, co-created “permaculture”. Permaculture was a combination of two words: permanent and agriculture. Bill Mollison later changed the word “agriculture” to “culture” to encompass a wider human and cultural aspect.

Permaculture is a design system that integrates agriculture, animal husbandry, architecture, energy efficiency (e.g. solar and wind power), soil repair, water harvesting, waste management (e.g. recycling, composting techniques), etc. Two of the main goals are sustainability and self-sufficiency – to develop a system that works with nature, minimize the harmful effects on Mother Earth, and at the same time receive maximum yield for human consumption. This is closely tied to the three ethics of permaculture:

. Care for Earth

. Care for People

. Sharing of Surplus


We only have one planet Earth. This is one undeniable truth. There’re many ways that we can treat our Earth sensibly and wisely, e.g. use organic farming instead of poisoning our Earth with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Take responsibility of our daily actions, i.e. cut down consumption that will contribute to greenhouse gas emission or unnecessary wastage that will choke up our Mother Earth. Even a seemingly simple act like buying food from a supermarket can have a significant impact on environment, if we take “food miles” into consideration.

Food miles are measuring of the distance a food travels from its grower/producer to our dining table. Needless to say, the longer it travels to reach our plate, the more energy it consumes (e.g. fossil fuels used for transporting, which in turn also contributes to the emission of carbon dioxide). So it seems logical to buy food that’s produced locally and doesn’t require long traveling time to reach you. This will also ensure the quality and freshness of the food you eat. But it can get a little bit complicated with the mode of transport, e.g. a longer journey by boat will have less environment impact than a shorter journey by car.

Currently, there’s simply not enough information on the food packaging that will tell us exactly how far the food has traveled and how much energy is involved in the whole process. However, we can start by supporting more local or regional food products, or grow your own food, even if it’s just a small percentage of your total food consumption! How about pomegranate or curry leaves along your corridor, basil for pesto sauce, or simply sprouts in your kitchen?

If you’re keen to venture out of your limited HDB corridor, you may check with your residential committee (RC) on how to start a community garden, or visit the “Community In Bloom” section under the National Parks Board website www.nparks.gov.sg. There are already a number of community gardens happening here in Singapore.


Permaculture applies several principles to work with the rhythm and pattern pf nature. This is to create a sustainable system for people to live in self-sufficiency. Some permies like to expand this ethic to include all living beings on Earth, saying “no” to animal cruelty and factory farming.

When we support local farmers and traders, we also help prevent them from getting wiped out by giant corporations. A greater sense of local community is fostered, followed by blossoming of trust and friendships.


Once we start to lead a self-sufficient life and consume not more than our needs, we may actually be surprised by the abundance we have in life. A farm that I’ve visited recently in Australia still has bottles of preserved fruits left from one year ago! Ok not many of us in Singapore are blessed with a backyard veggie garden. But you can start by sharing and exchanging with others whatever that you have – seeds, cuttings, books, information – sharing comes in many forms!

In essence, permaculture can help us relate to the Earth in a more harmonious manner.


I came across the concept of “ecological footprint” that reaffirms the need for each of us to re-examine our lifestyle. Ecological footprint measures how much land and water we use to produce the things that we consume and to absorb the waste that we generate. In other words, it’s our demand on Earth’s resources.

According to a research done by Global Footprint Network (www.footprintnetwork.org) in 2003, Earth’s total biocapacity (biologically productive area) was an average of 1.8 global hectares per person. However, the world’s total ecological footprint (how much we use ) was an average of 2.2 hectares per person. The difference indicates that we were consuming 25% more than what the Earth could support! It also means that it would take about one year and three months for the Earth to regenerate what we used in one year!

It’s a pity that Singapore was not included in the research. But the table below may give you a rough idea of who are the biggest spenders on Earth, and it may not come as a surprise.

Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity (2003 data)

                                           Total Biocapacity.                            Total Ecological Footprint

                                           global hectares per person.           Global hectares per person

World 1.8 2.2

High income countries 3.3 6.4

Middle income countries 2.1 1.9

Low income countries 0.7 0.8

(extracted from www.footprintnetwork.org)

We can reduce our ecological footprint by reducing unnecessary consumption in our daily lives. It’s common for some to think: “I’m just one single individual. I don’t have the power to change the world.” Of course we can’t change the world for the better if everyone thinks that way! But if each of us were to take just one tiny step, eventually it would add up to one giant stride. We may not see the result straight away, we may not even feel the influence of our tiny action, but that doesn’t mean the effect is not there. Do what you can and leave the rest to nature. Most importantly, empower yourself, know that you can make the choice – choose to bring a cloth bag for grocery shopping, choose to take public transport instead of driving, choose to buy in bulk quantities and share with friends instead of those tiny individually wrapped products, choose organic fertilizers for potted plants… There’re so many things that one can choose to do!

Living in a culture that’s so big on consumerism, we’re often bombarded by the advertisers: “More is good! New is good! “But what happens to be TV that we throw out when we bring in a new one? What happens to the old laptop when we upgrade to the latest model? I have a favorite statement by the Taiwanese monk, Master Sheng Yan: “Do I need this? Or do I just want it? That has saved me from many irrational shopping decisions!


Making choices in contrary to the mainstream culture is not easy. Soon after I learned more about permaculture, I had a dream: I’m riding a bicycle in the middle of an expressway … going against the traffic flow. I struggle to hang on to my bicycle with all the cars whizzing pass me. Nervous, cautious, and a little scared. But I know this is what I’ve chosen and there’s no turning back.

We have only one planet Earth. Saving the Earth is saving us.

Imagine this: Our land is healthy, our air is clear, our water is clean. The forests are brimming with beautiful wild life. The gardens are filled with abundant food crops. People share and live in harmony…

For reference:

The Permaculture Research Institute: www.permaculture.org.au

David Holmgren: www.holmgren.com.au

Southern Cross Permaculture Institute: www.southerncrosspermacultureinstitute.com.au

Global Footprint Network: www.footprintnetwork.org

To calculate your own ecological footprint: www.myfootprint.org