Permaculture and Peace: Part 1

A Holistic Look at Crisis

This year appears to be a year of crisis. In many countries, the risk of infection from the corona virus continues to be a subject of public concern(1, 2); while global conflict, at a state and community level, appears to be on the rise in many places(3). How can we meet this crises with grace, courage and integrity? And how can permaculture design, in encouraging holistic thinking, enable us to do so?

This article will explore some ideas about how we can find personal solutions to our own inner crises, especially by perceiving them as opportunities, which can radiate outwards to our communities and thus the world.



Peace And Permaculture As Practices

As I have explored in previous articles(4, 5), the practice of building peace – in particular as exemplified by the work of Johann Galtung(see for example 6) and John Paul Lederach(see for example 7) – can be seen as in many ways synchronous to the techniques and perspectives which permaculture design can give us. In times of crisis, especially if the crisis is happening to ourselves or our loved ones, it can be difficult to remember to engage in such holistic and peaceful practices. This can be true even if our personal life circumstances have not changed but we perceive them to be in crisis because of media stories or social media communication. 

One reason why practitioners of peace recommend regular practices which cultivate calmness, open-mindedness and compassion(see for example 7, 8, 9) is so that we can be ready to meet situations with these qualities, even if we feel directly threatened. The same can be said of permaculture design; if we constantly practice thinking in a holistic way and ‘turning problems into solutions’ (10, 11), then we can be ready to meet problems when they do arise with creativity and open-mindedness.

Image by msandersmusic from Pixabay



Crisis In The World Today

Recently, there have been many reports of the virus situation worldwide and of increasing civil unrest in the USA(see for example 12) and Brazil( see for example 13). These are the two countries with the highest death rates from the virus given by Johns Hopkins University(14). Outside of these countries, violence can be seen as continuing around the world. The number of ‘forcibly displaced persons’ (people who have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict) has been steadily rising over the past decade, from just over 40 million in 2009 to 79.5 million in 2019(15, 16). Conflict between neighbouring countries continues, from occupational situations such as those between Israel and Palestine(17) or Morocco and Western Sahara(18), to border disputes such as in various parts of Thailand(see for example 19), between India and Pakistan(20) and elsewhere.



The Art Of Peace

The Art Of Peace
Photo by Zaur Ibrahimov on Unsplash

By sharing these statistics, I do not wish to paint an overly bleak picture; rather, to try to show some perspective in the current state of the world as it is today. Permaculture design is about thinking holistically and as such gaining, as much as one can, a picture of the whole situation. The crises which are happening in the world today may seem unrelated, yet if we can ‘Design from Patterns to Details’(21) we can see that they are all part of the same underlying condition of disconnection(see for example 8, 22, 23, 24).

Many practitioners of peace have pointed out, from years of practice, that the only way we can truly achieve sustainable peace between humans, as well as between humans and the environment, is by putting into practice this holistic thinking. This is not to say that we need to try to solve all the world’s problems at once, but that in order to effectively solve any, it is necessary to bear in mind the connections. It can be very difficult to find a solution to a problem when you perceive yourself as being within the problem itself, which is why peacebuilding can be seen as an art, which involves communication, understanding and the ability 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”(7).

Permaculture design, by providing this holistic lens, can help us to understand the challenges, and to imagine that which has yet to be created.



Violence As A State Of Mind

Such a practice can be used on any scale. As I have mentioned above, direct physical violence is a daily reality for many of our fellow humans around the world. However, to truly achieve lasting peace it seems essential that we also address so-called ‘institutional’ violence(6), as well as any kind of violent communication or rhetoric. Broadly speaking, we can see the globalised economy based on financial profit as one of the major producers of violence in this world, in that, by prioritising monetary gain over human rights and environmental protection, individuals and companies are responsible for deforestation, soil degradation, poor working conditions and water pollution around the world(see for example 8). For example, in Brazil alone, in spite of that country’s preoccupation with the virus situation, 5,606 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest have been cut down so far in 2020(25), a higher rate than any previous year after 2009. Such a system also tends to produce huge amounts of waste, which can also be seen as a form of violence. As MK Gandhi is quoted as saying in The Gift of Anger, 

“Wasting anything is more than a bad habit. It expresses a carelessness about the world and a violence against nature.”(9)



Just Justice?

Such ‘institutional violence’ can also be seen in the form of retributive justice. Any ‘justice’ system which includes punishment for the so-called crime can be argued as perpetuating the violence within the system, since such punishment is a form of violence. Retributive justice could also allow for the dehumanisation of our fellow brothers and sisters, since things like murder, or detaining people against their will, are seen as against the societal code, but as justified when they are done to those labelled as ‘criminals’ as part of their punishment. Psychologically, this dehumanisation can be very insinuating into the consciousness of anyone who grows up within a society which condones retributive justice, and arguably allows for so-called ‘extremist’ thought wherein one person believes they are more justified than another group or individual(9). Retributive justice in general can be seen as unhelpful towards any movement which is encouraging equality; as biographer Louis Fischer said in his summary of Gandhi’s principles,

“An eye for an eye will only end up making the whole world blind” (26)

In many countries, there is an alternative to retributive justice being put into practice, called ‘restorative justice’(27). This involves taking harm reduction measures to encourage people not to commit crimes in the first place, for example by encouraging communities to work and meet together so that those within the community feel connected and thus unlikely to commit crimes against each other. If crimes do end up being committed, restorative justice practices would usually involve having ‘all stakeholders’ meet together to find direct and personal reconciliation(28). Such practices, which include ‘victim-offender mediation’(28), can be seen as more difficult than simply punishing the ‘criminal’; however, by encouraging forgiveness, compassion and understanding, the implementation of such practices can often lead to a fundamental shift in behaviour on the part of the offenders(28), which can be seen as much more sustainable and even regenerative than if they were simply locked up.



Finding Peace Within A Violent System

For many permaculture practitioners, we can observe that a lot of systems around us are made in an inefficient or destructive way, for example to produce food or to educate children; and yet we can continue to engage with those systems while simultaneously putting into practice alternative and holistic ways of doing so. The same can be said for peace building. We can observe violence around us – for most of us, this is probably a daily occurrence, if it is the form of environmental destruction as we can witness in many city blocks, or in the form of violent communication, whether this is face-to-face or through extremist opinions being polarised through social media. We can acknowledge violence where we see it, and – and this is the art – we can simultaneously put into practice alternative and peaceful holistic ways of engaging with the world.

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

Such practices may not feel easy to do, if you live in a social environment which encourages violence – whether this is through communication, such as dehumanisation of others through identity politics or extremist views, through retributive justice, or other ways – as a response to crisis. Nevertheless, I do believe that meeting the crises in our lives with grace, courage and integrity – by cultivating compassion and shared humanity, as well as shared being-ness with all beings on this planet – is the only way we can achieve true peace. What that peace looks like will be different for every individual. In the next part of this series I will introduce some suggestions for practical steps of achieving peace within our own lives.




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  8. Kumar, S, 2019. Elegant Simplicity: The Art of Living Well. New Society Publishers: Gabriolas Island, Canada.
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  12. Love, DA, 2020. ‘Violent Protests Reflect Violent System’. – retrieved 23/7/20
  13. VOA News, 2020. ‘Anti-Racism Protest Turns Violent in Brazil’. – retrieved 23/7/20
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  21. Permaculture Principles, 2020. ‘Design Principle no. 7: Design from Patterns to Details’. – retrieved 23/7/20
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  1. Fisher, A, 2002. Radical Ecopsychology. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.
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  4. Center for Justice and Reconciliation, 2020. ‘What is Restorative Justice?’ – retrieved 23/7/20
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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.

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