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The US Election, Standing Rock, Before the Flood, and How It All Ties in to the Permaculture Movement

Some time ago I wrote an article about permaculture as a political act, and as an idea, it was one of the more inciting that I’ve shared on Permaculture News. Many people wish to keep permaculture out of the political sphere, to view the goings on of the world as something we each address individually, not as a movement. There seems to be a fear, as seems often the case with “movements”, that we would all fall into a trap of self-righteousness and exclusivity, claiming this or that as “not permaculture”. But, I fear that that grossly misses the relevant communal /societal aspects that are integral to proceeding into global sustainability.

Not wanting to push this issue, to force people into battle lines, it seemed the wrong time to insist we pull together. I had put a few thoughts out there and gotten feedback, so it was a moment better suited to reflect and adjust. In truth, as a friend Neal, with whom I often playfully joust over the possibilities of plant-based permaculture, recently wrote to me in a moment of honesty, “I’ll happily support any initiative towards more sustainable, harmonious lifestyles.” I, too, tend to be happy for people to move in the right direction; however, I also believe in strength through solidarity, even when not all solutions are reached from the same perspective.

In light of some recent events, I’m feeling the need once again that we, of sustainable and harmonious lifestyles, be them permaculture or otherwise, find our common ground and a way to stand together. Our collective voice, a needed entity within the politics of progress, is much more thunderous than individual screams. While permaculture has spread enormously throughout the last couple of decades, reaching a much more diverse audience, it is still rooted in the same three ethics, and whether we call those tenets political or not, they play a role on larger stages than our own gardens and homes. There is no avoiding it.

The US Election

Vote Here (Courtesy of Neon Tommy)
Vote Here (Courtesy of Neon Tommy)

For most of October, I found myself becoming consumed with the United States’ recent fiasco of an election “season”, something many have related to a ridiculous reality show. I began to deeply care about the outcome of this particular political election, certain the winning candidate would change the trajectory of all things. As the circus of debates and videotapes and even emails has become less engrossing, it has occurred to me now that what I care about is much more of political stance than any one presidential vote I can make. The politics of my solution are, like an ecosystem, far too complex for one politician or party to encompass.

By the time this article is published(Editor note, we published earlier than scheduled), the whole thing will be over, and we’ll have moved into the next superficial drama. All signs say, however we all fall on the US presidential candidates personally, that we will be left with someone who has generally landed in favor of big businesses set to damage the planet: GMOs, fracking, Wall Street. And truthfully, that’s a show-stopper, as we have once again found ourselves lacking when it comes to human rights, environmental protection, fair economics, and energy consumption. All in one fell swoop, we were victims of a parlor trick that once again didn’t address in any real way the most important issues of our immediate future.

This should matter to all permaculture practitioners, whether voting or not, as we are undoubtedly preset to choices that we can knowingly cast on the side of earth care, people care, and the return of surplus. These simple ethics, not too much to ask people adopt, are the foundations of our system design for both the garden and, I would say, sustainable lifestyle. That includes The “lesser of two evils” in this election was an easy choice for most of us to make, however we fell on that issue, but the results of what we are left with will still fly in the face of sustainable, harmonious practices. That matters to me.

Standing Rock Water Protectors

Protest Here (Courtesy of Fibonacci Blue)
Protest Here (Courtesy of Fibonacci Blue)

What I sort of glossed over at the beginning of the month, as I YouTube-d endless debate and political commentary, was the increased interaction between the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with a government-sponsored police backing, and the stance of the Standing Rock Sioux. The grotesqueness of proposed crotch-grabbing and Anthony Wiener’s emails diverted my attention from something I could more fully support. Many would say that’s how the whole system is organized to work, but that’s an argument for which I can only find solution in changing my own behavior, demanding attention be given to what is relevant.

The Standing Rock Sioux and many other Native American tribes, as well as supporters with no indigenous heritage, have stood toe-to-toe with Big Oil, peacefully protesting the construction of a pipeline that would threaten the integrity of their water source (the Missouri River, the longest river in the US, at over 2300 miles) and desecrate burial grounds they hold sacred. Though the Sioux don’t own the land, and in fact Energy Transfer Partners out of Texas does, they have garnered plenty of backing—from the Maori in New Zealand, to Hollywood actors, to President Obama, to an anonymous donor of 2.5 million dollars, to over a million Facebookers—for their cause. Do the permaculture ethics not require, in some way, we do the same?

The Sioux, in my eyes, are standing on the solid ground of looking out for our natural resources, and by default, they are also highlighting our continued choice to remain reliant on petroleum-based industry and lifestyles. They aren’t dwelling on the negative but rather doing what they must to maintain the positive. It’s a movement that hasn’t been covered extensively by mass media, but one that is being extensively covered through social media by activist solidarity. This is a real, grassroots fight on behalf of the planet, its natural resources, and people who truly value it, as well as their heritage. The legality of the issue may be up for debate, but are the ethics?

After Before the Flood

Video: Before the Flood

It had been a while since I’d watched a damning documentary, something that illustrates just what state the planet has been put in, with no real stop to the madness in sight, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s new (and absolutely free to watch) National Geographic film, Before the Flood, had enough going on to pull me in. My wife Emma and I nestled in front of the computer, YouTube-ing yet again, after lunch one day this week and took a look. We finished it in no great surprise but with tears in our eyes.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it seems that big industries—petroleum, palm oil, industrial beef production, energy—have still put us in the situation we’ve all known we were in for some time, like back in the time of Permaculture One. Science—when we follow the overwhelming majority—suggests that climate change/global warming is real and perhaps the result, or at the least the speed of which is largely linked to the result, of the obscene levels of greenhouse gases that our modern lifestyles produce. However, to do otherwise just doesn’t seem to be in the economic plans of those in charge, so despite many agreements contrary to those plans, the status quo continues.

So, what then is the point of watching it all again? I suppose it was a firm reminder of the continuing and unflinching issue at hand (not Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton nor any particular pipeline), one that can be easy to largely feel positive about when your Facebook feeds and friends all exist in various shades of green. Some incarnation of climate problems has, in fact, brought nearly all of us into the permaculture fold, reading (or writing) this article at this very moment. Wasn’t that by design? Isn’t that why that book was written? Aren’t we meant to be voices and actors in this movement towards sustainability?

How It All Ties in to the Permaculture Movement

Bill Mollison (Courtesy of Nicolás Boullosa)
Bill Mollison (Courtesy of Nicolás Boullosa)

Permaculture’s purpose was to discover, both individually and collectively, new (and rediscover old) pathways in lieu of these destructive systems and to share our reimagined ways to interact with the planet for the betterment of humankind and our surroundings. Yes, it’s a system of design, but from its inception, has it not been politically charged? Is there some reason we must remain apolitical when it comes to the issues that mean the most to how the planet and people can continue to coexist? Are we not ethically obligated to not only have an opinion but one based on the basic principles that guide our designs and sustainable lifestyles? Isn’t this how we reach our decisions?

Sure, not everyone can be a rampant activist in the same way. Not everyone has the wherewithal to produce a documentary or even build a simple website. Not everyone is meant to drop their career to front the lines with the Standing Rock Sioux or to get completely off-the-grid and into 100% self-sufficiency. Not every vote is based on the same lines of logic, though that logic, shouldn’t we insist, be focused unwaveringly on the care of the planet and its people, moving towards a positive solution rather than maintaining a defunct system. Doesn’t permaculture as a movement proclaim with certainty that there are specific problems with how our various systems are currently arranged and realistic solutions to them?

What I’ve always liked in permaculture, what pulled me in from early on, was that it was a push towards the positive, not a continual reflection on the negative and who’s at fault. Sometimes, of course, that gets lost in our need to establish to newcomers why we are doing things outside of the existing norms, but it is always in a campaign to a positive answer found within the problem not a negative spiral of irrefutable differences. The point is we are doing something on behalf of humanity and the planet. Doing something is not an apathetic stance, but one wrought with passion and hopeful progress.

I don’t want to imagine a permaculture as something only cold and calculated, without meaningful action and creativity to go along with the careful observation. That’s why I insist it is inescapably a political movement, based in action. The very designs we make are meant to be bound by following a particular ethic, an approach that is pointed in its pursuit. To ignore politics—not candidates, but true political positions—in our lives, in this movement, is like negating the existence of water or soil or climate in our designs: It’s a part of the societal ecosystem we must address before sustainability can be the practiced solution. More so than ever, I believe permaculture is a political act.

Feature Photo: Albany Wind Farm, Western Australia (Courtesy of Juan Alberto Garcia Rivera)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Great article, Jonathan. While I’m relatively new to permaculture and still discovering what it entails aside from sustainable farming, what you’ve said makes sense to me. If permaculture makes a claim about a better way to live, one more in tune with the earth, it can’t help but be political.

  2. Permaculture is both a design system, and a movement. Permaculture as a movement is driven by activists (I’m one of them!), it’s a positive movement of doing, of taking action, of implementing solutions to the current problems rather than just protesting and complaining.

    As you mention, the three basic ethical principles of Permaculture should in all instances direct and our actions as a movement.

    Yes, permaculture can be viewed as ‘political’ inasmuch as we’re working to make the world a better place, but it’s not driven by abstract human political ideology which is extremely separatist. The permaculture movement embraces an open, inclusive and accepting ‘politics of the planet Earth’ which by necessity is inclusive as we’re all part of this living planet, we’re all in it together, and what we do to the planet, we do to ourselves.

  3. Great article and message. It’s sad that this is still an controversal debate. The greatest flaw of permaculture, to me, is the lack of political movement. Here, in Brasil, we can say that permaculture turned to be even elitist as the PDC courses prices keep growing as the demand grows as well. Let’s raise the flag of the permaculture as a political act!

  4. I don’t understand the need for permaculture to be a unified movement with political aims when individuals identifying with permaculture are totally free to be as political as they want (that is, if they live in a country with freedom of political affiliation, but even in repressive states an individual’s mind can be free).

    I believe that permaculture’s strength lies in its ongoing willingness to allow individuals to express themselves. The diversity of political views that I’ve encountered in the permaculture movement is something I hold dear. I believe that diversity is necessary for a healthy culture. And the fact that so many people of differing opinions can come together to advance permaculture as a design system speaks to the power of permaculture principles to unite and transcend.

    I do not see the need to co-opt permaculture for any one particular set of political goals. As soon as permaculture becomes associated expressly with one particular set of political aims you are going to see the popularity of permaculture plummet and bitter infighting ensue.

    There is nothing stopping individuals who identify with permaculture principles from being political, so what is the need to bring everyone else under a particular banner?

    1. I agree with you, Mr. Finch about no political persuasion required for enthusiasm of permaculture. However, as this article shows, political liberals believe there superior intelligence
      entitles them to set standards for the ignorant masses. It seems to escape their notice that some of the unwashed do not believe real science supports human caused global warming (or climate change as it is now called) and the power hungry politicians proposing ridiculously expensive solutions to something that does not exist.

    2. I agree with you, Joshua. Permaculture can not be permaculture if it is not for all kind of people, having all possible different political or non-political views. People living in all countries, of all ages, all skin-and-hair-and-eye-colours, spaking whatever language, having whatever religion or no religion at all, owning land or money or nothing at all … permaculture is for all of them!

  5. While I agree with the the author on the central premise, this article comes off as much too apologetic to me. Permaculture is about practices and designs; any designs (as Bill Mollison famously said “call it what you’d like, it’s just good design”) that work to create truly sustainable societies. Permaculturists should be fiercely political in the face of poorly designed political, economic, and social systems that have unleashed a 6th extinction event, rampant wars, economic & social injustice, and such severe environmental devastation that we are undermining our very survival as a species. 5,000 children die EVERY DAY due to lack of access to clean water. We don’t have time to be apologetic, we need to be doing everything we can to design new sustainable systems while dismantling the old systems that are epically failing.

  6. Thanks for writing this article! I study permaculture and volunteer for the Green Party. I voted for Jill Stein and her platform of #PeoplePeacePlanet. We have Green candidates whose values are in alignment with permaculture’s ethics. But unfortunately not many people know about them because they aren’t promoted by corporate media and do not accept corporate donations. It’s up to us to share with our families, friends, etc. I hope you check out the Green Party! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Peace :)

  7. This article is beautifully presented. I loved it. My worries are that once we enter the political arena, a lot of our energies would be deflected from the real work. We are already a “nation” with its own language, ideals and goals, no matter what we are individually. Yes, I stand with the Souix, I vote and I cried too, seeing After the Flood, but that is not my calling. I’m happy sticking to quietly continue making a real difference. God bless

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