Trojan Horses, Recipes, and Permaculture

by Toby Hemenway

The Transition movement seemed to catch fire right from the beginning, and I confess that its success made me, as a permaculturist, a bit envious. Here was a program for converting to a post-oil society, created by a permaculture teacher using permaculture principles, and it seemed to be becoming better known and more highly regarded than permaculture itself. Over a thousand towns have adopted Transition plans, national Transition organizations have sprung up in dozens of countries, and the Transition Handbook offers a clear implementation plan for energy descent, while permaculture lacks formal national and even regional centers in most places, and is a word that not only few people have heard, but one that many practitioners can barely define well enough for others to grasp. What was it that made Transition so comprehensible, exciting, and respectable, while permaculture seemed diffuse, slow-growing, and smelling a bit of patchouli oil?

In a recent article in Permaculture (UK) Magazine, Transition founder Rob Hopkins is quoted as saying that Transition is “a Trojan horse for permaculture,” a way of introducing permaculture concepts to people without their knowing it. I think we need more Trojan horses, because although I am convinced that permaculture offers solutions for our current crises, its growth is slow because few people think of themselves as designers. Trojan horses like Transition can speed the spread of permacultural thinking by giving people who need solutions some concrete recipes to follow, instead of demanding that they retrain themselves to be whole-systems designers before saving the Earth.

One of the barriers to adopting permaculture is that it doesn’t spell out exactly what to do. It can be used to design anything from gardens to refugee camps to whole economies, but you have to figure out what you want to design and, even worse, how to develop the design and the techniques that will create it. That’s too vague for most people. There are no hard and fast recipes in permaculture. It is site and circumstance specific. Permaculturists often joke that the first answer to any question should be “It depends,” and, although true, that’s annoying to someone who simply asks how to control slugs in their garden, and in response gets a slew of questions about their soil type, climate, plant selections, and feelings about slugs’ rights. Most people just want to be told how to solve their problem. They want recipes, not a lecture in design principles. And therein lies Transition’s strength. Transition, unlike permaculture, tells you exactly what to do. It is a recipe. I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s precisely what is needed: a clear example of applying permaculture design to arrive at a concrete set of steps to solve the specific problem of energy descent.

I think of Transition as an instantiation of permaculture design. Instantiation is a word used by philosophers to mean a concrete example or instance of an abstract idea. To be sure, permaculture’s ethics, principles, and concepts can seem abstract. This is one of the biggest structural stumbling blocks to the spread of permaculture: Only a modest percentage of people think in terms of design and abstract principles. Most people don’t. They want specifics. They want recipes. And there’s nothing wrong with recipes, properly applied.

Recipes are one way that we learn design. Remember when you first learned to cook? You followed recipes to the letter, and if zucchini wasn’t in the fridge but yellow squash was, you probably didn’t realize that you could still make ratatouille. After following enough recipes, you started to see the patterns that make up cooking, and soon you could look around the kitchen, see what was on the shelves, and improvise a tasty meal. The recipes taught you the principles and patterns of cooking, and eventually you could go off-recipe and design meals.

Permaculture works from the opposite direction, from large principles and patterns down to specifics. It’s as if instead of recipes, you were first taught the theory of flavor blending, of sauce design, of slicing methods and comparative cooking techniques—steaming, blanching, roasting—and given two or three recipes like herb-spiral dressing and keyhole-bed stew, and then expected to design whole meals. Few people work like that (and those are the few who are drawn to permaculture design for its own sake). More people are comfortable with the bottom-up approach of moving from specifics to patterns (inductive reasoning) than with a top-down system that moves from general principles to specific cases (deductive reasoning). Babies learn that if one stove is hot, all stoves can be hot; they don’t reason from a theory of hotness down to specific cases of hot things. Even Einstein used specific examples—his thought experiments about falling elevators and beams of light flashing from speeding trains—to arrive at his General Theory.

But blindly applying recipes can be misleading, frustrating, and even disastrous. How many of us have seen abandoned herb spirals? Few people use all 15 or so different herbs that will fit into an herb spiral, not realizing, as recipe-followers, that they can substitute small veggies or flowers instead of leaving their unused herb spiral to the weeds. As the author of a how-to permaculture book, I’ve learned that if you publish a recipe, people will follow it whether they need it or not, and in contexts far from anything the lowly author could anticipate. Then, when the method doesn’t meet their goals, some will say, “permaculture doesn’t work.” That’s like making the classic beginner’s error of cooking an untried dish for a dinner party, having it fail, and, embarrassed before the guests, concluding that “cooking doesn’t work in my kitchen.”

Here’s an example of how we can be misled by recipes. Holistic Management (HM) is a decision-making framework to help ranchers improve grazing-animal and grassland health. In a revealing article in the HM newsletter In Practice, permaculturist Aspen Edge describes her evolution from thinking of permaculture as a set of practices to seeing it as a way to design solutions. Aspen and her husband, David, with four years of permaculture experience in a temperate region, bought a farm in the hot, arid Mediterranean climate of southern Spain, and decided to create a food forest. Aspen writes, “Our permaculture mind applied those techniques which, if applied in a temperate or tropical environment, would build soil and conserve water. . . . Four years on, far from a complex, multi-stacking sward of ?vegetation, we had even less biodiversity and increased bare? ground. . . . Nothing was performing in the way that we had expected.” They shifted gears, and tried the specific methods of Holistic Management for brittle (hot, dry, and fragile) landscapes, which involve rotational grazing and building soil via animal manures, and provide specific steps for ranch financial planning. The land, animals, and their finances rebounded beautifully.

Their initial conclusion was that HM was simply better for drylands than permaculture. But they soon realized that HM is a recipe tailored for managing brittle landscapes like theirs, and nothing in HM was out of keeping with the strategies that a good permaculture design would arrive at. It was their perception of permaculture as a set of practices—that sheet mulching should be done everywhere, that all land wants to be a food forest—that was the problem. Holistic Management originator Alan Savory did not use permaculture as such to create HM, but he arrived at it by using the same observation skills and understanding of ecological processes that any good permaculture designer would. It is a recipe specifically for operating ranches, with brittle landscapes as its particular focus. Just like Transition, it wisely tells the user exactly when and where to use it, how to monitor progress, and what outcomes and milestones to be watching for.

This last—context—is what is often missing when we first hear of the iconic permaculture practices that embody permaculture’s principles so aptly. Techniques like herb spirals and keyhole beds are teaching tools that richly apply multiple principles and patterning, but they are often taught as general panaceas without giving clear guidelines. You need to really love herbs to keep up with the many species that stack into an herb spiral. Keyhole beds, in turn, can be difficult to irrigate, tend to be so intricately planted that newbies often lose veggies in them, and are hard to navigate on slopes. And food forests, often touted as the goal of every permaculture land design (and Gaia’s Garden is partly responsible for this misconception), can be, in hot, dry climates, failure prone resource-gobblers, and in most places are usually so densely planted that fungi, bugs, and rodents romp happily in their moist thickets, and harvesting in the dense growth is difficult. Permaculturists, being recipe-lovers like everyone else, can forget to apply criteria for choosing, monitoring, and evaluating our hallmark methods, and we often ignore the fact that there are situations when we shouldn’t use them.

We’re drawn to recipes like herb spirals, sheet mulch, and even process recipes such as consensus and non-violent communication because they are elegant solutions to specific problems. But they work because they are instantiations of good design that embody organic principles and pattern literacy, not because they are cure-all techniques to be plugged in everywhere. Sometimes a coin-toss decides just as well as hours of consensus process.

When designing a strategy or selecting a technique, it’s useful to ask, “What problem am I trying to solve with this?” rather than being drawn to a sexy method for its own sake. Transition and HM, by clearly laying out where and when they are to be used, and by being focused on specific problems, are excellent models of how permaculture-like memes can be propagated successfully to solve widespread challenges like oil depletion and range degradation. Another promising Trojan horse for permaculture is disaster relief. Recipes for solving disaster and refugee crises are being designed by first-responding permaculturists in places like Haiti and hurricane- and drought-struck communities. These are opportunities for permaculture to become part of policy for large NGOs and even nations.

To enrich our ability to use recipes and put them into context, without engaging in a full-blown design analysis from scratch, we can use pattern languages. The term was coined by architect Christopher Alexander to mean a structured grammar of good design examples and practices in a given field—architecture, software design, urban planning, and so forth— that allow people with only modest training to solve complex problems in design. A pattern language is like having a box full of wide-ranging recipes from large to small scales, from “how to cook a week of meals for 40 people” down through recipes for single dishes, to instructions for tasks like sharpening a knife, organized and notated so that we can understand the context and application of each recipe, or pattern. Like recipes, pattern languages are plug-and-play rather than original designs, but they allow plenty of improvisation and flexibility in implementation, and can result in rich, detailed solutions that fit. A handbook of pattern languages for the basic human needs and societal functions, structured along permaculture principles, would be a worthy project for a generation of designers.

We love recipes, and they are useful. But permaculture is not a collection of recipes or practices, or even patterns. It is a way of developing strategies to design or choose the recipes to solve virtually any problem. Those recipes, however, need to come with guidelines for when to use them, what to expect, and how to evaluate progress. Through those criteria, and an understanding of the limitations of recipes, we can avoid imposing recipes wrongly, and instead can arrive at them as useful solutions. Plus, a well-designed, properly specific recipe doesn’t need to have the stamp of permaculture branded onto it, but rather can be a benevolent Trojan horse to introduce the new paradigm of whole-systems thinking to those who need it. Which, if you think about it, is most everyone.


  1. Bravo Toby! I really love your recipe analogy. I agree that most people (like myself) do think from a “tips and tricks” perspective rather than a “grand design” one. I think it behooves us permies to take a step back and emulate recipes from our permie cookbooks as well as from other design disciplines. One thing I wanted to know after I took a PDC (actually with you in Hawaii, Toby), was what preexisting guilds would work in specific climates. Though there are some resources out there, it was mostly, “it depends” kind of things. Basically, I realized that I wanted to learn companion planting. How successful a guild does certainly depends on lots of factors, but I feel like we need start simple and then add in complexity, echoing what Toby said in the article above. Maybe we should be making more permie recipe books then?

  2. Coat hangers in wardrobes is the analogy I use in my PDC courses, we do not specialise in designing coat hangers although sometimes it does happen, we do specialise in designing wardrobes and very good functional ones.
    Bill Mollison’s book “The Permaculture Designers Manual” I give to my PDC student as the perfect course handbook and as an analogy is the perfect practical guide to total dress sense for the great diversity of cloths that we keep in our permaculture wardrobe, for any occasion in any climate and landscape situation.
    If we all used “The Permaculture Designers Manual” as a manual in the way it is intended to be used there would be no problems understand the diversity of potential inclusions in our “Permaculture Wardrobe”.

  3. You should know by now Toby just why Permaculture has not entered into the mainstream – It is simply that it been appropriated mainly by new age hippies. This saddens me for permaculture if properly utilised by society, could contribute so much to the problems we face today. Its practical and mostly common sense approach to stewardship of the land offers us golden rays of light in a sometimes darkened world.

    However the clap trap philosophies and new age nonsense that sprouts forth from the mouths of many of its practitioner’s ensure that permaculture will remain hidden from view for a long time to come.

    A quick perusal though Permaculture magazine will confirm this; whilst there are numerous, almost must read articles for those of us who seek practical and sustainable solutions, there are far too many examples of hippy gibberish. They seem to have little idea of marketing either, look at the cover of the last issue (a guy wearing a bowler hat and multi coloured shirt, playing a ukulele),who on earth, apart from the target audience, would buy this magazine if they saw it in a shop? Could you imagine Gardeners’ World magazine for example, displaying a similar cover?

    When I first came to permaculture, I would try to engage friends and local farmers, explaining the benefits that it could offer them, but usually their reaction was one of disdain, and amusement, permaculture to them was a fringe pastime of hippys. Read any comments section in the media whenever permaculture is mentioned, you get the same ridicule.

    I’ve given up now, preferring agroforestry and restorative agriculture, both of which are inhabited by people who do not sprout gibberish.

    This is something you will have to face up to sooner or later. Whenever I’ve tried to bring it up on social network forums, I’ve faced hostility from permaculturalists. You seem to want to keep it as your own special preserve.

    There are many exceptional people doing incredible work within the movement, people like Geoff Lawton for instance, but for every Geoff, there are 20 new age hippies.

  4. Hemenway is a good writer and this article is no exception. Nevertheless there is much to argue with here. It is important to be critical of critical thinkers, to critique the critique. There are many assertions in this article that may or may not be true. I am not writing a full critique here – but here’s a number of issues I quickly noticed.

    1. He asserts that Transition caught fire from the beginning – maybe, maybe not. The first permaculture phase also caught fire from the beginning (and it still catches fire). Permaculture inspired people with a fresh alternative to mainstream, industrial thinking, primarily through the initial charisma and teaching of Bill Mollison (and many others that followed). There are now many new teachers who carry the momentum of permaculture forward. The energy of “movements” (and Hemenway does not agree that permaculture is a movement!) waxes and wanes, and transition will be no exception – perhaps it’s too young to have seen this yet, although there are some transition groups that have folded or become a mess – but that’s just a common group dynamic. I still see many PDC (and other permaculture) courses booked out in advance, and see that the popularity of permaculture continues to this day, especially from younger people (ie people decades younger than me!). This popularity continues even if we still don’t know what permaculture means!(There may not be a neat, short sound bite definition – and why do we need a sound bite anyway? – but I feel that Mollison’s definition from the Designer’s Manual (page ix) is still valid and useful)

    2. Permaculture requires “you to figure out what you want to design … and that’s too vague for most people”. Really? Working out what you want to design is too hard? I think that’s called having objectives – and is critical not just for design, but for many other things.

    3. Permaculture is a top down approach and “works from large principles and patterns down to specifics” – sure, we “design from patterns to details”, but we also start at our backdoor – and we “obtain a yield”. there is much that in permaculture that is both top down and bottom up. We do stuff too, just like transition, but maybe without as many meetings!

    4. Hemenway talks of permaculture using a pattern language – and Peter Bane’s book The Permaculture Handbook includes a full chapter on permaculture patterns (or recipes). There are many examples of permaculture “recipes” but we need to use our own local ingredients.

    5. We do need to more fully understand our “problems” and there may be a tendency to jump into solutions too early. That is not isolated to permaculture – even many scientists/researchers fail to adequately define the problem. It’s not taking the time to sit and listen and observe and get a precise problem definition (so we’re solving for pattern, in Wendell Berry’s words).

    That’s just a few short comments.

  5. This is a really interesting article – thanks for writing it Toby!

    I have to say that on many levels, I agree with you both about the Trojan horses and the recipes. As a dryland urban permaculturist, I find so many of the permaculture memes are not suited to my climate. Herb spirals? No way! They exacerbate exposure to heat and lose precious moisture. Using the model of sunken beds, keyhole gardens become somewhat clumsy as well. And food forests – what, exactly, do they look like in the desert? How do we not exceed our water budget but still get food? One of the answers is to redefine what we think of as “food” – enter mesquite pods and prickly pear fruit. Also, even in nature, our trees just don’t grow in massive groups unless they’re along some kind of waterway.

    Geoff actually created a great recipe for dryland permaculture right here on this site when he was developing the project in Jordan – I refer to this post often: I’ve used it (and Brad Lancaster’s books) as a guide in designing my own project for his online PDC. And while I agree that the Manual is an incredible tool, it takes time AND experience to fully appreciate it. Recipes like Geoff’s post on Jordan are HUGELY helpful in getting those of us who are less experienced pointed in the right direction, at least for our climate, right away. (serious designers have to know all climates but it’s great to have the recipe to start with).

    As for Transition Towns, I think a lot of what makes it so successful is that it is geared towards urban areas where much of humanity lives. Its recipes are in the language of urban areas and do not need to be “translated” from a rural to an urban lexicon like much of permaculture does when you apply it to urban settings.

  6. Hey Toby! Your book, Gaia’s Garden, was my first in-depth introduction to permaculture principles (proceeded by The Barefoot Architect).

    Thanks for the great review of where we stand on the education of permaculture principles. I, too, really love the Transition Town movement and appreciate it’s potential for redirecting our societies towards healing and prosperity.


  7. I have been thinking ever since I learned about permaculture some years ago that since choice of language style and rhetorical strategy is a primary barrier to change, we desperately need a collection of communication strategies and formats with information about how they are aligned with permaculture ethics and strategies.

    To be most useful each entry might also include a selection of conditions under which it would be highly likely to work (if used skillfully) and some contexts in which it would not likely to succeed.

    I discovered permaculture during a 15 minute phone conversation when a new friend who was an experienced permaculture designer roughed out its three ethics, its emergent/evolutionary process, and 8 or 10 of its principles. Long before he had a chance to mention the petals of the flower, I’d recognized that what permaculture was (surprise! surprise!) in perfect alignment with human nature, with how people become motivated to learn and with the kinds of strategies used by teachers who apply biomimicry in the classroom. I kneaction research I’d done with teachers for 30 years was a form of social permaculture.

    I’ve been wanting to write about that ever since, but when 2008 rolled around financial permaculture seemed to have more potential to have an impact so I got so busy starting a time bank in my area and it never got done.

  8. My apologies for the last message get away from me before I could copy-edit or make my final point.

    I hesitate to suggest this as I don’t have time to organize the effort (unless the leadership could be shared among the group), but what I intended to add my comment above is that if a half-dozen social permaculture designers were interested, we could begin to build–by drafting collaboratively and emergently, a bit at a time–a collection of process structures that would help motivate the learning on which change depends.
    For example, and I’m sure I have been guilty of this as well–when learning new approaches humans have a tendency to over apply an exciting new process structure–open space technology being one I see misused regularly–whether it is likely to accomplish their goal or not.
    I believe such a collection, even if rough, would be beneficial. While communication advice certainly abounds, not much of it is discussed (to my knowledge) on this site and rarely is it discussed in terms of how well particular practices align with permaculture principles and processes.
    Would anyone else be interested in pooling knowledge and energy to get such a compillation begun?

  9. I agree with Logma. I am a bit uneasy about transition anything. Transition to what? Try reading Agenda 21:Behind the green mask and you may have a different understanding. I have been trying to find UK resources and contacts but the level of intelligence and disinformation is staggering. I think Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton should reign in some of this stuff being taught as permaculture and insist that only the manual should be used. There may be a trojan horse in the transition movement, but whenever was a trojan horse supposed to be a good thing?

  10. Firstly, great article Toby!

    Secondly, Mollison states that there are no “principles” in permaculture. In the Permaculture Design Manual, he has painstakingly converted principles into directives for the sole purpose that permaculture should be clear, practical and easy to apply on the ground.

    That said, growing some herbs (even without a design or a 72-hour course) or buying local is an easy first step that many are willing to take. My first step was trading fast food for organic. Though not very impressive in itself, it did set me on the path to where I am now.

  11. great article Toby. really well put, i think. i read your book first, years ago, and thought permaculture was only moderately useful to me here on the cold rainy Alaskan coast. then i read Mollison’s manual and realized where your book was coming from, and that in fact permaculture is incredibly useful here!!!! you are absolutely right about the majority of people wanting recipe answers, not complex design systems. myself, i love complexity, i love design, and i LOVE systems thinking. so, good fit ;)
    it does seem like there aren’t enough public examples of really great ‘recipes’ in operation. as someone who is always looking for inspiration, i haven’t found much beyond Geoff and Holzer (recommendations accepted!) it seems like this is what the worldwide network is aiming for– a place where we can all show others the recipe we figured out for our specific place in the world. i hope to see it take off more in the future.

  12. Hello Craig.

    Yes, I did read the article you linked, and a very good one it was too. I don’t know what the situation is like in Australia, but here in the UK, permaculture is now almost firmly the preserve of those with strong philosophical ideals, including lots of therapy/counselling waffle. They go on and on about people care, yes we must look after each other and open our hearts to others, but, try talking about people care to the average Joe in the street or Fred on the farm, you won’t last very long.

    I became interested in permaculture because I was drawn to its wonderful methods as expressed by Geoff, Mark Shepperd and Sepp Holtzer amongst others, not to be lectured at by some 20 year old kid, who, having done a two week course in permaculture design, thinks they know it all. I’ve been a gardener for 40 years now and can see bullshit a mile away.

    Here, the main source for information is Permaculture magazine, a publication firmly in the grip of earth goddesses,self help therapists and tribal wallahs. It’s more like a cult than any religion.

    I do feel for Bill Morrison, 40 yeas after creating this wonderful tool, sees it now in the hands of new age loons.

  13. Thanks for this Toby. Great conversation to be starting. Three comments come to mind.

    First is that your take on holistic management is misleading, though perfectly understandable, given that by a large margin its most publicly shared application is to do with drylands restoration via livestock. Turns out, however, that far from being “a recipe for drylands restoration,” which is much like saying permaculture is a recipe for sheet mulch gardening, holistic management is a decision making framework that helps in making environmentally, economically and socially sound decisions in the short, medium and long term with respect to the management of any whole, be it an individual, a family, a business, a ranch, a farm, a nation, or whatever, in whatever context, climate, scale, etc. So in being a framework pertaining to anywhere human beings are making decisions it is extremely broad. In our work we are finding amazing synergies between permaculture and holistic management and my point for anyone interested in exploring the fruits in bringing them together is please don’t pigeonhole HM as a “a recipe for drylands restoration.”

    Second and I’m not totally sure how this fits in but in recent times in teaching permaculture we are starting with more abstract stuff (ethics, principles, patterns etc) then cutting straight to the (or better a) permaculture design process as a practical, direct, phase-by-phase skill that is not only more concrete and recipe-like (despite its generality), but that starts by demonstrating that all humans are designers, and that all we are doing is taking the design process in all of us and tweaking it a little, maybe rounding it out. Still more abstract than a recipe for solving a slug issue though, but we feel like almost everyone is getting it. I guess I see design process as a practical pathway from the patterns and principles to the most appropriate strategies and techniques for a given situation.

    Finally re Rob’s brilliant Trojan horse analogy, permablitz is another (more humble) example, a bridge between the mainstream and the pure and often more abstract core of permaculture which as you point out can be intimidating for folk.

    Thanks again Toby again for having your finger on the pulse not just here but generally.

  14. In many ways I think this whole article and conversation skirts around a couple of important points. Permaculture shouldn’t be thought of as a way to save the planet or society- it shouldn’t have to live up to that expectation. Permaculture hasn’t failed in any way, the only thing it has failed to deliver is world domination. It (as a movement) also often fails to recognise people as individuals rather than a mass organism to be tamed and lead, just as the reigning paradigms do.

    Not all people are chefs or cooks – some struggle to warm up a can of baked beans, even if they are given a recipe and detailed instructions. Not everyone can be a designer, hell hardly any can really be even good designers let alone great ones. In the absence of recipes, which I agree people long for, then we [b]must[/b] have a permaculture community where each individual has a different role to play. Expecting all individuals to design their own places is unrealistic, especially in these early days. The lack of permaculture uptake (as a social movement) to me is much more about it’s lack of focus on community building, on people and social structures. It has been too bottom up in its application. And this is why Transition Towns seems to be moving along at a quicker pace. It’s engaging more people as a community, and it’s building structures/infrastructures for people to practice permaculture within, and it is allowing people to ‘transition’ at their own comfortable pace. Going cold-turkey into permaculture is just a step too far for most people.

    At the moment there are few if any of these permaculture friendly social structures in place and that makes the uptake, design and practice of permaculture all the more difficult.

    Permacultural theory has given rise to Transition Towns, but Transition Towns is the application of Permaculture principles, which is giving rise to the broader structures required for more detailed design and implementation.

  15. Great debate-provoking article from Toby Hemenway. And, most of the comments have been really constructive. But, I don’t think it is a “good look” for permaculturists to be accusing each other of being “new age” and “hippies” – as if that was something we ought to be terrified of. It reminds me of the various progressive/left-wing movements of my young adulthood (early 1980s) and the way we used to accuse each other of not being PC enough. It is a waste of effort – and I think we would all at least agree that permaculture is about energy efficiency. If you don’t agree with what some people are wearing, go find others who are more congenial.

  16. I have enjoyed reading all your comments. I must say each contributor is pretty well versed and knows what they are talking about when it comes to permaculture. I am a newby to permaculture. I have gardened for years so I am comfortable in a garden. I am not comfortable with the approach of how it is taught. There is just too much input. Keep it simple. I too love recipes. I know there are trained teachers in my area who know what they are doing. Since I am in the older generation I don’t feel that comfortable “fitting in” with the “new age hippie”. Anyhow, I really want to know if what I AM doing is correct in my desert area. How are we going to learn to do permaculture gardening if it costs every time we have a question. From the top on down it costs hundreds of dollars to even have a course online. Now we both know it doesn’t cost 1500 to 2000 to teach a course online. Is it about the money? Iam sure this is why some individuals take the course to make money teaching others. I don’t have a problem with that it is just how expensive it is to take the courses. I’ve decided to just read all I can on the subject and apply what I can figure out on my own. Geoff Lawton makes it look simple but then he does’t create a foodforest in a back yard in a city. I have no slopes for catchment. Or a tractor to dig a pond. What is to be done with someone like me? Ha. Well continue with your conversations and when you get it all figured out let the rest of us “lay” persons know when your going to provide us with recipes. Love to all

  17. I applaud the Transition Towns movement and its potential to spread permacultural thinking and practices to a wider number of comunities than is possible with PDC courses alone. No permaculturist should need to feel ‘envious’ of Transition; it’s an organic development of Permaculture in practice thanks to Rob Hopkins and his co-horts. This of course should be the goal of any design, or design system, that the applications find the right scale, strategy and organization to take on a life of their own. I think that Transition, as a project based in permacultural design is a most welcome “trojan horse” if there ever was one. But I think that “trojan horse” is just a metaphor for discussion, while the reality is that growth of complex organisms means that each new phase of development contains, redevelops and extends the previous state into a new complexity without exactly ‘erasing’ the previous state (see Ken Wilbur, Holons, etc…)

    Bill Mollison wrote and lectured a lot about community strategies (LETS, ethical banks, trusts, community-supported agriculture, permacultural credit unions) but I feel that this has always been somewhat of an underdeveloped area in comparison to the main body of his work (climate-specific site management strategies in the Designers Manual for example). What David Holmgren made clear with his Permaculture Flower is that there a lot of areas in society (petals of the flower) in which to apply permaculture-derived strategies and applications. It looks to me like Transition Towns is doing just that.


  18. A very thoughtful and insightful article.

    Our culture is largely story based and people tend to follow those stories. A recipe is just a story after all and vice versa.

    Part of the larger problem is that simply following stories doesn’t involve asking the hard questions when things go wrong.

    Asking the hard questions requires both honesty and observational skills. However, the ultimate lesson for people is to admit and correct their errors and then alter their original design / implementation / intentions to take into account the new information. You then have to observe and be responsible for what happens. This is a difficult process for most people, especially if they are raised to simply follow a story.

    Permaculture is asking people to live consciously and that is the core reason for designing systems in the first place.

    It is not a hard ask, you just have to start small and retrain yourself.

    I stopped reading the comments above as some people fell into the trap of displaying values. It is too easy to spend all day arguing values and not achieving anything.

  19. Hi Toby,

    I see Transition Towns as clear permaculture communities opening up to people who don’t need to have any knowledge of the systems they use to live. I don’t know how my computer works and I didn’t build my house but can still use them. If i had the charisma to convince my neighbours to join me in redesigning our street for ecological living, there is nothing to say we couldn’t hire a permaculture designer. Had I the money I would become a Transition property developer, quickly turning average consumers to consciencious ones simply by making it easy for them. It is really hard for working families to change lifestyle due to lack of funds, knowledge and opportunity. I live on a council estate where it is impossible to obtain any sort of fresh produce within walking distance, the farmers’ market is monthly and very costly, even more so than the box schemes designed for rich costumers. Transition towns is the rolling out of permaculture settlements to, hopefully, the masses.

    When you say permaculture has been hijacked by ‘hippies’ I have to, sadly, agree. I have visited a few communities in Europe claiming to be permaculture projects. At least 3 showed absolutely no evidence of any kind of permaculture, except maybe for using less (but this was more due to poverty than anything else). They were just buses of unwashed people (ok maybe water conservation) smoking weed and prattling on about Eastern philosophies whilst shopping at the,not so local, supermarket for every necessity because they have no idea how to grow food!

    On the idea on recipe books, I think they would be really good if very specific, better yet would be to develop software that could suggest plants according to whatever parameters have been input into it: temperature, precipitation, daylight hours, time of year, soil conditions, slope, etc. There could be an up to date database of heirloom seed and plant nurseries world wide, or even distribution centres that can supply the right seed for specific regions, etc. It could also include design tools that would allow the user to map an area with their mobile phone and then input water features (pond or dam or swale) or grazing areas or orchards (with to scale mature canopies for each type of tree) or a house with plumbing and energy systems and all. Even where to place your animals

  20. rotate your crops and plant trees could be factored in if it was a continuous management tool to plan and record work on any site, from a balcony to a food forest the size of Wales.

  21. In my opinion, hippies have infiltrated Transition, making instead a trojan horse for political partisan protest activity, instead of the Permaculture party atmosphere it was intended to be. No wonder so many Transition groups dwindle.

    Having a PDC is great for my understanding of design process but without my content knowledge base training and experience in gardening & beekeeping I would not be able to apply it very well.

    PDC practitioners are always learning and practicing new “recipes” in small livestock management, plant care and diagnostics, alternative social economies, and low tech energy systems. Experimentation is part of the process. Preventing mistakes with proper research and education is best, but mistakes are also inevitable; learning from them is equally good experience.

  22. Is it just me, or has everyone missed something.? Transition groups have been infiltrated but by more than just hippies. Has anyone read “Behind the green mask” by Rosa Koire?. I suggest you do. The hippy excuse is counterintelligence programming at it’s best. Just like Ashtar Command or 2012 stuff. You need to know who is interested in subverting worthy causes and why. I think the only valuable permaculture reference work is the manual by Mollison. Do you know your enemy?

  23. Calling people “hippies” is offensive and prejudicial. Derogatory epithets trade in stereotypes that are never accurate, prevent true consideration of any idea that the slurred may put forward, and are generally thought-stopping. The epithets can drag discussion down below the level of discourse into angry self-serving shouts back and forth.

    The history of the development of permaculture shows that it was deliberately kept free of the legitimacy of academies, and deliberately kept free of the weight of credentialing by allowing a two week course to be recognized as sufficient for teaching. This did allow the movement to propagate widely throughout societies all around the world, as intended, but the price was that some teachers amalgamated their own world-views onto it. I don”t think these “hybrids” are less than the stream of thinking that adheres strictly to the basic core teachings. They are a product of the initial intentional thinking regarding the school”s development.

    Dare I say that Transition Town itself would fall into this category of hybrid development, along with those mystically esoteric schools of permaculture that are so reviled here, even to the extent of being labelled with the “H-word” epithet? “Diversifying out” was a popular concept for facing the impossible conundrums that began to become evident in the early 1970s. Real world experience over time is the criterion that continues to apply to the variants. As permaculture now seeks the academic recognition that that it once for good reasons scorned, I think we must not disown our more remote siblings. Their experimental results could still prove as valuable as those of the permaculturists seeking a reformative reentry into a more mainstream culture that remains maladaptive.

  24. Edified to see a recognition amongst my peers that the “Wu-Wu” element discredits PC and does great disservice to its mainstream adoption.
    I checked out of active PC involvement shortly after sitting on a panel with a self-proclaimed PC “Guru” who went on at length about “Metaphysical Geobiology” or some such.
    After quizzing him about “who’s spirituality” and if there was room in his “open” world view to consider how alienating it might be for some e.g Christians or Muslims to take part in the moon-goddess-worshipping-drum-circle that too many PC courses have devolved to, I pointed out Mollison’s quote about the objective of PC being to “move from being consumers to producers”.
    He looked at me disdainfully and replied ” Yes well that’s HIS opinion”.

      1. Craig it was from your excellent article that I originally got the idea of “who’s spirituality?” I had never conceived of it that way before and I thank you.

  25. We need to demonstrate that PC can be a viable alternative to traditional agriculture. That people can grow enough food to eat and make some profit too.
    I’m trying to do that now on my 5 acres in south Florida. Post below if you have any successful real life examples.
    Unfortunately I think the general perception of PC is that is more of a backyard gardening system, a hobby, but people can’t really make a living out of it.

  26. Many resonances here, Toby! I’m going to look out more of your articles having read this. I stumbled across it while searching in vain for Aspen’s former blog about Semilla Besada. I remember my own disappointment to encounter her seemingly “heretical” view that the arid landscape may not, after all, support a food forest. In picking up this theme I think you show good balance and I look forward to reading more of the same from you.

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