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Permaculture: A Call for Diversity

Sri Lankan tea plantation worker
Photograph © copyright Craig Mackintosh

For the past year, I have been circumnavigating the world as a curious observer, student, and wwoofer. After undergraduate studies, I wanted to balance the Darwinian culture of academia with a paradigm that encouraged humility and knowledge sharing within a global civil society. I took my first PDC at Occidental Arts and Ecology in California and continued on to Strawberry Fields Eco-lodge in Ethiopia (PDC with Rhamis Kent), the PRI of Australia (soil biology and aid worker course), Thailand (interned at Rak Tamachat and studied with Sangob, Fair Earth Farm, Pun Pun, and Tacomepai), and returned back to Quail Springs Permaculture in California (natural building apprenticeship and an International Development Professionals PDC).

As giving and receiving are one in the same, I want to give back to the permaculture movement by suggesting how permaculture can improve its theoretical diversity in order to be transparent and accountable to its tenet of fair share. Although the permaculture movement has inspired me, I am still grappling with its legitimacy within the world order. To promote the agency of its students and nurture the development of a global civil society, PDC curricula needs to increase its diversity.

To actively challenge the injustices of the global system, PDC courses should additionally provide students with an introduction to reforming policy. Analyzing the patterns of society can guide us to an understanding of how the whole (global civil society) can be greater than the sum of the parts (permaculture students and/or projects). Provided that the output of a system depends not on the number of elements it contains, but on how many exchanges take place within the system, PDCs need to focus on the exchanges (or lack thereof) between governments and grassroots organizations and individuals.

This is essential for permaculture to maintain its integrity as it becomes further institutionalized, especially in terms of permaculture aid projects. In the rush to apply the theory of permaculture into tangible projects globally, we cannot let the gratification that comes from restoring environmental degradation distract from addressing the invisible structures that catalyzed the need for a permaculture movement in the first place. In particular, global permaculture projects must promote rural and marginalized peoples right to land. For instance, learning about or teaching methods to improve soil fertility is futile when policies prevent secure legal rights to land. Even if one owns or has access to land, there is little incentive to apply permaculture and invest in improving it, if there is no guarantee that one will continue to have access to the land in the future. Coined in a developed country, permaculture often takes for granted that the majority of the world’s rural people, especially women, cannot fully participate in decision making about land because they lack independent or direct rights over land (1).

According to Landesa/Rural Development Institute (an NGO of land tenure experts that, in partnership with governments around the world, has helped more than 100 million families in 40 countries obtain secure land rights), the majority world’s poor live in rural areas and rely on agricultural labor to survive, yet do not own the land they till. If permaculture is to be a transparent grassroots movement that reduces poverty and food insecurity, it must acknowledge that in most developing countries, land is a critical asset. “Land rights—whether customary or formal—act as a form of economic access to key markets, and often confer rights to other local natural resources, such as trees, pasture, and water” (1). Thus, without secure land rights, resource competition increases and rural, marginalized communities are more easily exploited.

In sum, the individualism associated with academia can pervade the permaculture pedagogy if PDC courses do not address the international and domestic policies exacerbating earth care, people care, and fair share. Further diversifying permaculture theory to include international and domestic policy, will strengthen the resiliency of the permaculture movement. Promoting mutually beneficial relationships among the people, organizations, and the legal and economic systems that challenge just access to land, information, and financial resources, is essential. To strengthen the flow of energy, information, and resources between all the elements of the human system, we must even factor red tape into the flow. Although policy is difficult to stomach, we must acknowledge that everything is interconnected and celebrate that the problem, is the solution.

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  1. Thanks for this important call, Stephanie. More permaculture folks must pro-actively respond to this call in the world, and continue to learn and improve strategies for achieving the kind of impact that is needed. Certainly, understanding how institutions, governance, and policy fit into the path towards true sustainability is vital… and goes well ‘beyond the bio-physical.’

    Your points about the need to bring attention and focus to the “relationships” and “exchanges” between governments, communities, and individuals (or the ‘cross-scale interactions and linkages’ – if you will) is critical. All of these levels have important roles to play, and must be connected and integrated to a degree. There is no ‘silver-bullet-panacea’ to these issues of governance (such as simple ‘de-centralization’,etc), but a mix of strategies, applied at a mix of scales (global to local and between), with overlapping jurisdiction (for built-in redundancy and adaptive response diversity)… fundamentally a poly-centric approach, is most likely to support sustainable outcomes.

    Regarding your call for policy literacy in permaculture education: the Holistic Managment framework (which I teach as well) has developed a specific process for Policy assessment, development, and design… this could be a place to begin the introductory education you speak of?

    While academia has its own set of issues (you refer to), there remains very valuable and relevant material emerging from this sector. For example, the entire ‘academic’ field of ‘Political Ecology’is a rich source of research and ideas around the issues you bring up here. The work of the (recently late) great nobel prize winning Elinor Ostrom, synthesizing robust principles for sustainable governance, would apply here too. And other academics who are doing important work:

    The bottle-neck may be in making the work of the academics, as well as any GOOD global policy work that does exist (for an example that explicity includes ethics just as permaculture does, see the EarthCharter:, operational on the ground in local situations. To accomplish this needs motivated folks who have feet and abilities in ground level and policy level networks (sustainability ‘mid-wives’ perhaps!). These can help to include local needs and voices into policy development, as well as to facilitate translation of governance supported good ideas into localized practice.

    So, count me in, and keep following your passion there!

  2. For the teaching of permaculture to be far more effective in its aims (people care, earth care and fair share), it needs to be deliberately subversive and militant, and explicitly engage in a cultural critique of power structures. These power structures are culturally constituted but parade – to the powerful and the powerless alike – as something inevitable and natural. I say this fully aware of the fact that in the present dispensation becoming self-reliant is a radically subversive act in itself. In its promotion of skills to design and implement functional systems based on optimal interaction between components – that includes people – the teaching of permaculture needs to harness the subversive insights of some academic movements, ironically emerging from sclerotic, elitist universities. The paradigm of the Global Commons as a mode of governance (Elinor Ostrom, David Bollier) that needs to be protected at all costs from the Market/State Duopoly. The Global Commons includes land, water, soil, knowledge, skills, credit, and public spaces. Other insights from political ecology and economic anthropology (Alf Hornborg, e.g.) also need to have their practical implications embodied and proclaimed by permaculture activists: human progress as a cultural illusion of the privileged; the destructive totalitarianism of general-purpose currency (where tracts of old growth forests can be exchanged for the same system of signs – money – that can be exchanged for a Coca Cola factory); our unquestioned awe for and trust in technology and wealth, reminiscent of fetishism and magic – whereas wealth and technology are never politically innocent; the structural violence and militarism that underpins capitalist consumerism. To this we can add insights from indigenous pedagogy and contrast them with our own mechanical metaphors of education that derive from a Victorian age bent on both mass production and the production of a human monoculture. It is an ongoing project but nevertheless, especially in the light of the failure of global efforts, has acquired tremendous urgency.

  3. Dear Sephanie

    Thank you very much for your very thoughtful piece which I read with great pleasure.

    I fully support your endeavour and want to add that I should also love to see an analysis of gender and power relations within the structures of permaculture institutes themselves. If we analyse the roots of globalised capitalism we see patriarchal forces exposed.

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