Permaculture and Community part 1: Permaculture as a Tool for Peace

For many, permaculture offers not only practical guidelines but also a particular lens through which to view the world. With the permaculture ethics and principles in mind, it is perhaps easier to maintain a holistic view of the world and yourself within it. This means, in my experience and opinion, that you can be more open-minded about what comes into and goes out of your experience, and by seeing the ‘bigger picture’ you are usually able to find actions or solutions that complement other things and beings in your environment.

All of this means that permaculture can be a great tool not only for landscape design and gardening but for helping people to interact in more holistic and wholesome ways with each other. In this way it very much relates to the practice of peace building, the somewhat under-reported but powerful art of, among other things, helping people to find the “capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (1).

In this article, I will look at the concepts of one particular proponent of this field, John Paul Lederach, with his idea of the ‘Moral Imagination’ (1), and explore to some extent how it fits in with permaculture. The second part will give ideas on practical applications of these concepts.  

The Moral Imagination

John Paul Lederach has been working in peacebuilding and conflict resolution for the past couple of decades and helped to found the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (2) at the Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, USA; yet he describes himself as an artist (1). For many, the idea of ‘peacebuilding’ may conjure up images of soldiers in blue helmets, conference rooms and treaties. Where is the art in that? Though such things may have their place in creating peace, the peace process itself has its roots in the hearts of the men and women who are involved in creating it – it is always a creative act, which is really the definition of art. From his many years of experience Lederach draws together four capacities and disciplines which can be “held together and practiced by those who find their way to rise above violence” (1); an ability to view the holistic web of relationships which make up our experience; a “paradoxical curiosity” about what is possible, a “fundamental belief” in the power of art and the creative act, and the willingness to take risks. Together these four aspects make up what Lederach calls the “moral imagination” (1).

Violence and Morals

Before I go further with exploring these four disciplines, let us discuss briefly two concepts which may cause confusion: ‘morals’ and ‘violence’. Firstly the term ‘moral’  – is Lederach trying to get us to follow his particular ethical code by using this word? And what if we don’t want to? In his book of the same title (1) Lederach describes how he decided upon the term, not as a descriptor for following a particular set of morals but for unleashing the imagination which is rooted in the capacity to imagine social change. He proposes that the conception of what ‘moral imagination’ means, though it differs from person to person, is linked by the ideas that “the moral imagination develops a capacity to perceive things beyond and at a deeper level than what initially meets the eye” (1), and that there is some kind of transcendent quality to that which one imagines; the choice of the word ‘imagination’ links to “the necessity of the creative act” (1).

So we have the term ‘moral’ linked to an ability to widen our perspective and to bring a transcendent quality to what we imagine. What, then, of violence? Lederach’s work is peppered with this term and his examples of when to use the moral imagination all centre on the lands he has worked in where physical violence is a large part of daily life: Tajikistan; Colombia; Ghana; the Somali-Kenya border; Serbia; Northern Ireland. If you do not live in such a state you may feel that this article is irrelevant to you. It is true that physical violence is more obvious in some parts of the world and some places are in more crisis and so more immediate need of a re-imagining of society than others.

However, if we broaden the term ‘violence’ to mean not only physical acts designed to cause pain or suffering but to any act which has this aim then we can see that violence is not some kind of outside phenomenon that does not affect us, but is present in the structures of our own societies as “structural” or “institutional violence” (see for example 3) or even in our personal relationships as “violent communication” (4). Lederach quotes Vicenc Fisas as saying: “[V]iolence is the behavior of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand;'”(1) so having ways to transcend cycles of violence can be useful to anyone, anywhere. Practicing permaculture helps to do this already in many ways, as it encourages the imagining of solutions: from bringing food sources which allow people to eat without participating in the violence of factory farming to creating community links, and much more.

Holistic Thinking

The first aspect of the moral imagination is probably familiar to permaculture designers; the capacity to “imagine ourselves in a web of relationships” (1). This capacity is important in helping to build peace as, if we are in a web of relationships that connects to the entire world, this web has to also include our enemies. Whoever we are fighting, whether it is with guns and bombs or words and demonstrations, are a part of our world and they have needs and opinions which can be listened to as well.

Wondering What is Outside the Box

The second aspect is that of “paradoxical curiosity” (1). At its heart this is the practice of rising above dualities. Ideas of black and white, right and wrong, victims and oppressors can all be looked at from other angles and indeed it may be necessary to do so if we are to “break the cycle of violence” (1). As Lederach puts it, “The gift of paradox provides an intriguing capacity: It holds together seemingly contradictory truths in order to locate a greater truth” (1).

Yet having this understanding is not enough if you are not going to then try to find a way to use it. This is where curiosity comes in; the willingness to explore, and try out new ways of doing things.

Understanding that we’re all Artists

Thirdly, we have the “fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act” (1). Though the idea of ‘art’ is sometimes given as a practice which only those whose job it is to do it can do, the world is abundant with examples that the ability to create is actually within every single one of us. For Lederach art is a key part of peace and he tells numerous stories of how art can help to create peace. We may not consider the power of a song, a painting, or a dance, until we see it moving the two supposed enemies to tears and watch their transformation. Even in communities of sustained violence artists are still creating – like the story of the cello player who set up in the so-called ‘Bread Massacre Square’ of Sarajevo, with bombs whistling all around him, for 22 days in a row – one for every person killed there – so that the music could help to “heal” his fellow citizens (1).

The Desire and Capacity to go Beyond the Norm

Lederach’s final component is the willingness to take risks (1); the ability to be aware of what is unknown and go into it anyway. This is not only a great skill in helping to create harmonious societies but, as others have explored (5), an integral part of our own inner development and our ability to find the ‘hero’ within ourselves.

Many people who practice permaculture are already well aware of the ability to take risks and step outside what is known. Many of us live in societies in which the accepted norm is of being radically disconnected from the things which one consumes. Simply by trying to bring ourselves closer to the source of our food, then, we are taking the risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown. Lederach also points out the importance of this capacity in the stark context of violence; for many of the people he worked with, protracted physical conflict has been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember. Violence is the known; stepping beyond violence requires the courage to take the risk of doing something to which you do not what the outcome will be. This can be applied also to any situation of prolonged violence; whether you live in a society or community wherein there are many forms of institutional violence, or in a relationship which includes violent communication, if these are a ‘normal’ part of your experience then you cannot go beyond the violence without taking a risk.

How Can we Use these Concepts?

I hope that you have found some inspiration from the “moral imagination” and how it relates to permaculture. But how can we use this in our everyday lives? This is what I will explore in part 2 of this article.


1. Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
2. Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, 2017. ‘CJP History’.
3. Galtung, J, 1969. ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’. Journal of Peace Research, vol 6, no. 3, pp 167 – 191.
4. Rosenburg, M, 2003. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press: Encinitas, USA.
5. Campbell, J, 1959. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.


  1. Thanks for beginning this conversation about permaculture and peace. My family did a talk about social permaculture for about how the 7 of us live in 3 households on the land together practicing earth care, people care and fair share principles. Choosing to live in peace and learning from conflict if it does arise, being independent and interdependent, listening to each other and our environment. I have spent a lot of my life learning from NZ indigenous people and the philosophies that enabled them to adapt and flourish with the land. The key concept I have learned from Māori and other indigenous philosophies is that we are all connected – earth, sky, environment, people, spirit, past, future. I looked at a glass of water one day and thought ‘this used to be dinasour piss/wee/urine’ and it connects us, as does air. I think peace and compassion can be felt and practiced when we believe we are all connected, in feeding soil microbes with compost tea or feeding a new born relationship.

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