Joel Glanzberg: Continuing the conversation about permaculture and working to regenerate whole living systems (E20)

Joel Glanzberg – the sequel

I was fully stoked to have this second chat with Joel Glanzberg where we continue exploring his journey with living systems thinking and working within a regenerative paradigm (after first talking in episode twelve). Same topic yet very different energy as the previous episode with Joel’s long-term colleague Carol Sanford.

As we discuss Joel is heading to Melbourne in July 2019, where in addition to running some Regenerative Practitioner training he’ll be giving a free talk July 17 and a one-day workshop on Regenerating Place July 27 – both in Brunswick, Melbourne. He’ll also be tagging along with me to some of my current projects so I look forward to reporting back on those adventures and conversations in due course :-).

Check out Regenisis Group here, the Regenerative Practitioner training here, and Joel’s personal site Pattern Mind here.

Here is the full text from Joel’s open letter to the permaculture movement (please share any thoughts you have about this or the episode in a comment – I always so appreciate hearing how this stuff is landing out there):

First of all, I want to thank you, not only for your good efforts, time, and energy but for your caring…your caring not only for this living earth but for the people and the beauty of life. Thank you.

Many of you may know of my work from the example of Flowering Tree in Toby Hemenway’s excellent book Gaia’s Garden and the video 30 Years of Greening the Desert, others from my regenerative community development work with Regenesis. In any case I know that you share my concerns for the degrading condition of the ecological and human communities of our biosphere and I am writing to you to ask for your help.

We are at a crisis point, a crossroads and if we are to turn the corner we need to use everything at our disposal to its greatest effect. My concern is that we are not using the very powerful perspective of permaculture to its greatest potential and that we need to up our game. We know that the living world is calling for this from us.

I often feel that permaculture design is like a fine Japanese chisel that is mostly used like a garden trowel, for transplanting seedlings. It can of course be used for this purpose, but is certainly not its highest use.

Permaculture Design has often been compared to a martial art such as Aikido because at its heart it is about observing the forces at play to find the “least change for the greatest effect”; a small move that changes entire systems. This is how nature works and is precisely the sort of shortcut we desperately need.

The lowest level of any martial art is learning to take a hit well. Yet this is where so much of our energy seems to be directed: setting ourselves and our communities up to be resilient in the face of the impacts of climate change and the breakdown of current food, water, energy, and financial systems.

The next level is to avoid the blow, either through dodging, blocking or redirecting it. Much of the carbon farming and other efforts directed toward pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and developing non-carbon sources of energy fall into this category.

At their highest expression practitioners track patterns to their source, shifting them before they take form, redirecting them in regenerative directions. This is what is behind principles like “obtain a yield” or “the problem is the solution” and the reason for protracted and thoughtful observation. We learn to read energies and to find the acupuncture-like inoculation or disturbance that changes the manifestation by changing the underlying pattern. Problems are turned into solutions and provide us with yields if we can stop trying to stop or block them. This is the pattern of Regeneration.

Every permaculture technique is a small disturbance that shifts the underlying pattern and hence the system. Water-harvesting structures, rotational grazing, chicken tractors, mulching, spreading seed-balls, setting cool ground fires in rank meadows or forests, transforming spoiling milk into creamy cheese, revolving loan funds, libraries, and even the design course itself all follow this pattern. The point is to disturb brittle senescent systems to allow the emergence of the next level of evolution, even if the system is our preconceptions and habits of thought. This is at the heart of self-organizing systems and the key to effective change efforts.

In a changing world it does no good to teach a man to fish. What happens when currents or climate or communities change? It is essential to teach how to think about fishing, whatever can be fished with whatever is at hand. This is why it is called permaculture DESIGN.

In its highest form permaculture is not about designing anything. It is a pattern-based approach to designing systemic change efforts. This is the point of the PDC as well as all that time spent in the forest or garden. It is to learn how living systems work and how to observe them to find the effective change so that we can apply those skills to shifting the living systems most in need of shifting: human systems including how we think about the world.

Changing paradigm tops systems thinker Donella Meadows list of the most effective places to intervene in systems. To effectively change the systems that are causing global degeneration we need to change the human paradigm and we need to start by shifting our paradigm of what permaculture is. If we do not shift these larger human systems our lovely gardens and beautiful hand built homes don’t have a chance.

Although the PDC contains many techniques and ways of doing, it is about changing how we think about the world primarily. It is meant to crack our certainties about everything from agriculture to economics and how the world works. This is why so many of the principles are like a whack on the side of the head. “What do you mean the problem is the solution? Or that yield is limited only by my mind?”

If the PDC is designed to shift our paradigm, then it shows us the pattern of shifting people’s paradigms. And this is the greatest use of our skills. Not to create gardens or to train gardeners, but to shift the thinking of folks who understand business and economics, laws and governance, so that they can all be re-thought and re-worked to follow the patterns of living systems.

We have been warned that “the map is not the territory” and then have mistaken the map of permaculture as the territory of permaculture. Living in a materialistic and mechanistic culture we have grabbed onto the stuff and mechanisms of permaculture rather than the essential patterns. Just because we learn about living systems through gardens, forests, and fields, does not mean that is where our art is most fruitfully applied.

So what am I asking of you? Please just think about this. Let it burn out the choked underbrush of your certainty. Watch how it effects how you think, and teach, design, and work. Let it open room to let something new emerge in the sunlit space. While cracks in structures need to be fixed, in nature from splitting seed coats, hatching chicks, or birthing babies or ideas, cracks are the doorways to new life.

Please forward this around your networks. Debate it. Trash it. Try it on and try it out. If you would like to know more or let me know your thoughts please go to

Many thanks for your open hearts and minds,

Joel Glanzberg

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  1. I wanted to say how much I enjoyed both of your interviews with Joel Glanzberg. I’m not trained in permaculture but am exploring patterns in nature as a way to understand economies and cities. I found my way to your podcasts following a Twitter trail. After writing pages of notes, I’m feeling grateful for Joel’s perspectives on applying permaculture principles in a variety of settings and inspired to delve more deeply into this work. Thanks!!!

  2. I wanted to chime in here to express my gratitude for you sharing your impressions Jeff & Rosemarie and more generally to bring this fascinating situation into the open.

    One the one hand we have a seasoned permaculturalist (in the form Joel Glanzberg) who has been doing great practical permaculture stuff for over three decades (Including one of the centrepiece three-decade-old food forest examples in Gaia’s garden). Who here in his open letter is attempting to distill and make accessible what he’s learned about the potential and promise of permaculture relative to some of the less promising pathways he sees it walking down.

    On the other we have, I’m assuming, two other well-meaning folk interested in permaculture, namely Jeff and Rosemarie. While this is the first I’ve heard from you Rosemarie, Jeff recently made an insightful comment on another post which tells me Jeff you are not a random trouble-making troll or whatever the lingo is. Anyway the point being Joel’s language lands for you as substance-free hippie mumbo jumbo. Which is fair enough. And where as interesting to me is that no-one else has chimed into say otherwise, possibly meaning that they are either unsure or in agreement with you.

    The situation that fascinates me here is I believe that unless there is some kind of way that more experienced permaculturalists, and in fact any permaculturalists, can productively share their considered reflections with others in a way that prompts some kind of meaningful dialogue, then permaculture is not only missing a fantastic opportunity to grow and evolve, but its chances of stagnating are all the higher.

    I mean this dynamic is pretty common I’m guessing to many forums outside permaculture. Someone takes some time to try and convey something they are deeply passionate about and others skim it and chime in declaring it empty bullshit or whatever. The upshot being zero progress and the likely devolution where any potential for civil, productive dialogue falls flat on its face where folk end up yelling “no your opinion is BS” – “no yours is” and so on, until they eventually each storm off in disgust even more convinced than they were when they started that they are completely right and the other person or persons are completely wrong.

    I mean perhaps Joel has just done a spectacularly bad job of conveying himself here. Certainly it is the first time in the history of this project such declarations have been made. However I would invite anyone in making such a sharing in future to elaborate at least a tiny bit. As in is there anything that you can relate to at all? Is there anything you’d be up for expressing an alternate view of? Is there anything at all you could share on top of your declaration of BS that might contribute to some kind of steps toward clarification or progress within permaculture? Even just sharing that you think permaculture is doing great and doesn’t need any critical self-reflection or further development would be great to know about.

    No pressure or anything, just an invite. I’ll continue to be grateful to any comments for they all give me valuable grist for the mill as in information about how this stuff is landing for folk.

    Thanks again,
    Dan Palmer

    1. Just came back to this post, having seen Jeff and Rosemarie’s comments before and wondering if it ever went anywhere; shame it didn’t.
      I thought Joel’s writing was very clear and uncontroversial. Indeed, it seems to state many truisms from within permaculture and ask a couple of questions, all in all much less ‘controversial’ than much of the content you’ve been creating, Dan!
      And I couldn’t agree more about having a language for advanced practitioners to use to communicate. A recent shoutout for more ‘intro-level workshops’ for the British Convergence had me thinking about how I very rarely feel pushed or challenged at Convergences, often leaving feeling like I’ve had a nice enough time but not especially inspired. When you’re holding events of only a couple hundred people is it worth trying to keep the space broad and encompassing all levels of enthusiasm, or if the workshop offers lean towards being tailored for a more ‘advanced’ crew then should you follow that? Given the fairly slow-moving feeling of genuine permaculture in Britain right now, I know which I’d opt for…

  3. This is the biggest problem with permaculture. It sound like hippie mumbo jumbo. Imprecise language, empty metaphors, a complete lack of perspective. How can this be taken seriously?

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