People SystemsSocietyVillage Development

Permaculture’s Achilles’ Heel

There are some challenges in permaculture that do need to be addressed. And it is not what we commonly think — of such issues as big business trying to shut permaculture holistic practices down, or people just not caring about the next generations. In all honesty, if you think it through, our current systems involving big business, which are based on finite resources, will eventually fall. And people who are not concerned with the next generations will eventual come to see their loved ones having hardship and not able to obtain resources. In affect – those issues will rectify themselves out of necessity.

Permaculture is based in optimism, however, often times at the beginning of a permaculture course we will go over a few ‘Why Permaculture’ aspects which are not so positive — such as desertification, de-forestation, and toxins in our food systems, etc., so we can define the problem/s and have the starting point for our current situation. Let’s take this same approach with the ethic of People Care.

People Care Issues:

  • Discouragement
  • Competition, and not supporting colleagues due to it
  • Selfishness
  • Belittlement
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Lack of appreciation
  • Intolerance
  • Discrimination
  • the list could go on…

We cannot totally blame ourselves for lacking the ability to not show gratitude at all times, or not encouraging people, or even being discriminatory. In truth most people want to be the best possible versions of themselves. However, being a slave to a system based on monetary gain and the fear of losing it – we have become too time poor to re-learn a more positive way of engaging with people. And to top that off we are so trapped in this system that we are not even taking the time to pass on positive people care values to our children. Current consumerism, along with toxic laden foods, have consumed our ability to have a consistent, mature emotional state. If we are to continue as a species on the planet, it is not the earth care aspect we need to truly consider, as those natural systems were designed perfect without any input. It is the people care systems that not only need a breakthrough, but once devoted to, will take us to a place of greater community and true wealth with one another.

I would like to take the opportunity to state that I am not a psychologist, counselor, guru, or any professional in the self help business. And I too have suffered from a disconnection with people because of our current operating systems and my own selfishness and emotional immaturity. And when I first began thinking of starting a permaculture school, I felt I was not equipped with the people skills needed to engage a rotating and permanent community. I only come from a place of humility to the subject of people care after a lifetime of making many foot-in-mouth mistakes.

Through trial and error, or how some call it — research — I have noted a tremendous amount of success working with folks after sincerely listening to them and offering support and encouragement. In studies I have found that showing appreciation to someone for even the smallest of acts brings forth a very gratuitous receiver of that appreciation. As a matter of fact I have seen cashiers give pounds of organic groceries away just because someone in line noticed that they were having a tough day and lent them an ear. Now I am not promoting the people care aspect just to get something out of it – but research has shown it to be true.

There have even been turn-around stories of people who were always in a hurry and never listened to anyone, who when they were able to fully engage in a conversation and show their understanding of a situation, it caused pleasantness not only for the receiver of the conversation, but the persons who previously never listened to people stated they experienced great joy after truly engaging sincerely with others. This makes me see that people care isn’t just about the very large problems of agricultural slavery or oppression of people (which are very serious, heart-wrenching issues), but that people care goes down to the smallest of conversations.

As a test, do it yourself: for a week, in every encounter — such as a restaurant, family gathering, or check out line — notice something positive about the person you are interacting with and sincerely tell them how awesome it is that they have that trait, then listen to their response and engage in that moment. You will be amazed at the results.

These types of interactions are mandatory to the future of permaculture. The encouraging and building up of one another in our communities is what is going to make us, or break us. We cannot do it alone.

In point of fact, it is imperative to immediately start learning better ways to communicate and engage with one other. Let’s use our imagination and dream up a world a few generations hence in which every community has installed all earthworks, food forests, structures, and water systems. In effect, all the mainframe parts of a community are in place. We are no longer concerned about food, shelter or water. What would happen to us if we do not put an emphasis on the people care aspects and continue our current competitive and socially inept thinking? We will breed a generation of people who have no respect for what has been accomplished and will be driven by ambition to win! This will lead to “not learning the lessons of their forefathers” and once again degradation and exploitation of people and natural systems will ensue.

It is imperative to train our community and youth in people care and emotional maturity and to start now.

Many, if not most, permaculture sites have failed due to lack of experience and knowledge of community and people care systems. We have such an opportunity to evolve our current mindset and transition into something truly great for one another as well as the planet. The definition of wealth has to be changed. We are the most valuable assets we have to one another. Let’s encourage awesomeness!

Nicholas Burtner

Nicholas is a permaculture practitioner, advocate, consultant, teacher and speaker. After a greater calling in 2011, permaculture found Nicholas and since has filled him with an endless passion that has led him to many travels, learning, spreading, and practicing permaculture and natural living ever since. Apart from consulting and designing properties across a large arena of different climates and bio-regions, Nicholas has attended internships at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia under the leadership of Geoff and Nadia Lawton. He also obtained a permaculture design certification from Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison. Nicholas has also attended the Earthship Academy for natural and recycled building construction in Toas, NM under the guidance of Michael Reynolds. After very worthwhile learning, and on the ground experiences, Nicholas opened Working With Nature Permaculture Learning, Research, and Healing Center in late 2012 which is now School of Permaculture. The school has both an urban and a rural demonstration / educational site which offer hands on experience as well as class room learning. School of Permaculture’s website offers permaculture related tips, videos, and articles on a mostly daily basis.


  1. Thanks for the positive, encouraging words. There is no difference between listening to nature, listening to each other, and listening to ourselves – it’s the same skill set, called compassion.

  2. With land that has accommodation being so expensive, access to land difficult in general and 0.3% of the population owning 66% of the land, there would really need to be a major redistribution of land ownership before permaculture could really take hold in the U.K and that will never happen.

  3. Lets not forget that some (or even many) people are just quiet or less outgoing by nature, and this pretty much would have always been the case (observe nature). This doesn’t negate the need to overcome the current social and economic pressures that contribute to isolation, but I am weary of absolutes. No matter how much the more social among us want it, we can’t all be supper outgoing and pro-actively compassionate all the time, this may sound selfish but what we do with our emotional energy must also be sustainable. Often I’m more comfortable planting a tree or tending my animals than I am socialising, even with people I consider to be good friends where there is no financial involvement. If this means my Permaculture site is automatically doomed to fail then that’s pretty depressing, and almost makes for a prejudice within Permaculture it’s self that I’m sure non of us want encourage.

  4. Hi Ian, I don’t think being a more introspective type automatically means you’re not compassionate. We’re all different, but compassion can be universal regardless. I’m personally not a ‘gushing’ type myself. We need all types, not just highly social extroverts. Acts of kindness and tokens of appreciation can be quietly planted, along with your tree.

    1. I agree Craig :) , just thought it was worth noting to avoid excluding anyone. In the long term, caring for the environment is an act of compassion towards everyone and everything.

  5. I notice that in this article you take hope from seeing natural systems as ‘designed perfect’ and so tending to revert to something healthy, but the human being you have not included in these natural systems nor this hopeful tendency. I respectfully disagree, (I am as it happens a ‘peoplecare professional’!) I see the same reason to be optimistic in your own discovery of meaningful and helpful ways of interracting with others. You will find many of the same observations, and a well-developed science to back them up, in the work and writing of Seligman from USA and development of what he calls Positive Psychology. We can design wellbeing for people into our systems, you are far from alone in recognising this need, and even if it is a bit later to the permaculture party I think peoplecare will catch up.

  6. I really appreciate all of your comments. The people techniques in permaculture truly need devoted time and application so we can spread the word about what works and what doesn’t. You guys really do rock!

  7. I think about this sort of thing all the time Nicholas. What strikes me is that when I talk and interact with people on an individual level, they are for the most part respectful, encouraging and caring. What I see in the broader context is that when the people aren’t up close and personal, they become faceless. The broader we, has difficulty recognising the multitudes as a collection of individuals. Look at much of the public policy we see (I make particular reference to the Australian governments at this point in time). In the public service and larger companies they are even referred to as the Human Resources. It seems to me that it is the scale of the thing. As Homer Simpson so eloquently put it when watching video of car accidents or some such thing, “It’s funny because I don’t know them”.

    I honestly don’t think Permaculture itself is missing the importance of people care. I don’t think individual practitioners miss it either. Rather, it is the diminutive worth given to it in the corporate society that makes its importance so stark to us. I think the scale of permaculture lends itself to encouraging People Care, because we return to a scale that is more appropriate to us. We remember and re-learn what belonging to place means. And I also believe that when we tend to our place with care and attention, and each of us does the same, the bigger picture resolves itself.

    I think Earth Care, People Care and Returning the surplus to the first two need only be Ethics, they don’t need to become doctrine nor dogma. If you get my meaning. Live by them and our children will absorb them, try to teach them to children and they will have difficulty learning them…

  8. Great article and I love the enthusiasm! I couldn’t agree more we need to build bridges from the hypnotized consumer world of self destruction to spaces of nature and authenticity. I propose setting up ‘passion’ projects sites all across the world, where small groups get together and set-up Permaculture systems in their living spaces, while at the same time working on their creative projects and passions, so as to combine work, nature and lifestyle in a symbiotic whole. One of the proposed sites is in the Philippines due to its low cost of living and attractive lifestyle features, as well as beautiful natural spaces.

  9. Since my own habits didn’t teach me to listen and speak with as much useful compassion as I needed to use I turned to Marshall Rosenberg and Nonviolent Communication. More tools in the toolbox!

  10. Great article and it is something permaculture is going to need to confront at some point. Some unsustainable industrial and government systems are going to collapse under their own weight but we could be waiting a while and many permaculturalists, ecosystems and species will needlessly suffer as a result.

    Permaculturalists would appear to have three choices – 1. try and escape the mess and effectively go off, mark time and biodegrade quietly somewhere with minimal impact. – 2. try and confront some of the government and industrial stupidity when the opportunities arise. -3. try a combination of both 1. & 2.

    Many permaculturalists are well placed in organisations and communities to assist with positive changes however it is difficult to act on their own and not without the assistance of special resources and skills.

    I am wondering whether we should be collectively working on a “New Permaculture” of type 2. projects that challenges re-examination of the issues and appears more extreme and radical – just to get people thinking and getting some more air time and brain space.

    This is necessary so that when people and politicians settle for a compromise, that it does not compromise the planet as much.

    Exactly what form this “New Permaculture range of Peanut Piercing, Packages of Presentable Extended Permaculture Hits” should take is still unclear to me but I am sure we can do it. I think re-examining every aspect of permaculture to look for possible leads and then building these into more presentable and strong cases is something that would give the “Non- Permacultures” a run for their money in peoples minds and resulting actions.

    Every and multiple forms of art, media and communication platforms need to be considered from song to computerised virtual world design if we are going to get the necessary messages through at the right time.

    This very website is a great example of lots of starts to these processes but we need to take these concepts and make them presentable to far beyond the converted.

    We are now in a world where for some people certain words or the slightest mental effort just turns their brain off like a thermal or electrical overload switch set up by spin doctors marketing.

    We need subtle new ideas and approaches that carefully defuse the “booby trapped” minds and then start recruiting them for good.

    Talking about good things one to one is fine as mentioned in the article above however when people are being so bombarded with adverts, busy lives and social, economic and environmental decay, it would be good to have some outcomes beyond just nice feelings – although these are not to be underestimated !!!

  11. It is painfully telling that in fine plea for civility you break out “agiculture slavery”. With few exceptions permies avoid and demonize the farmers holding most of the land and growing the vast majority of the food. Huge blind spot. Huge.

  12. This reminds me that I should put meditation back into my daily practice. Meditation, retreating within myself, actually leads me to be more outgoing, social and inclusive of other people and as the writer points out this is a most important way to encourage change in this world. Time to get back on the cushion.

  13. Nick, The article is wonderful and has inspired me to challenge myself to reach out further to be a little sunshine in everyone’s life. And that is no small task for me. As awful as this sounds I’ve been known to say I’d rather dig a ditch in rock-filled hard-pan than attend a social gathering because I feel so out of my element.

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