Ben Haggard on Potential and Development in Permaculture and Beyond (E30)

In our first ever conversation, Ben Haggard of Regenesis Group shares his history with and perspective on permaculture.

This episode catalysed waves of reflection that are blowing my mind.

Yes, I was struck with the profound clarity and depth of what Ben shared.

Then the sheer resonance of the relevance to exactly where Making Permaculture Stronger is at – well that pretty much knocked me off my seat. You could say I’m still climbing back up off the floor :-).

I don’t know about you, dear listener/reader, but I have the real sense that this conversation is itself a nodal intervention in Making Permaculture Stronger’s ongoing evolution.

It is like I can feel the energy shifting and growing and generatively transforming throughout my entire being and hence the being of this project. New levels of Will are awakening.

I mean I use the terms potential and development (who doesn’t) and before this chat I would have said I had a fairly clear, coherent grasp on what they are. Not any more. I was almost dazzled by the clarity Ben gives these terms in a way that resonates deep in my bones. Then, when he spoke about the idea of permaculture’s originating impulse, well, game over. Let me pen a few reflections on each.


After decades of experience and reflection in collaboration with a tight-knit community of practice, Ben has reached a fascinating perspective on what potential is. As I understand him, he sees the potential (or the possible contribution) of something as existing in the tension between that thing’s deep, enduring, inherent character and the ever-changing reality of the context in which it is nested and in particular what this context calls for in this particular “historical and evolutionary moment.”

To identify the potential of a farm, a garden, a person, a family, a business, an organisation, a blog project, we need to ask:

  1. what is the unique character of this being? then
  2. what is currently called for in the immediate, local, and greater wholes it is nested within?, and
  3. what could happen here that would harmonise these two things?

Which brings us to…


Clearly, potential often remains latent. For Ben, development is then the practice of actually revealing and manifesting the potential inherent in something, which involves removing anything in the way and becoming more and more relevant and valuable to context.

Originating Impulse

When Ben first mentioned this phrase late in our chat, I knew immediately it was going to inform my very next steps with Making Permaculture Stronger. So take this as a sneak preview where I’d invite you to start sitting in the space of this all-important question: what was permaculture’s originating impulse? Please don’t rush – take your time with this – there will be space to chime in with what arises for you very soon.

One thing here I’d invite if you come across any sound bites or text that speaks of this originating impulse to you, especially if from the early days of permaculture, please send it through to me and I may well include it in the upcoming post.

Other Notable Threads

  • what Ben said about permaculture’s usual initiation/conversion experiences and how these can make it very difficult to bring the ideas into one’s existing ways of working I think was well worth further exploration. I mention it here as a reminder to come back to this in future as appropriate. Any thoughts?
  • This idea of the word place as a rare world in English in that it includes people, landscape etc etc…
  • the idea that if you can be with a person or other living entity as it is, you are taking it as whole (as opposed to our default pattern of fragmenting things by paying attention to their various attributes)

Links to Stuff Ben is involved in

Ben on Place


  1. Hey Dan,

    This is another one of the episodes that largely went over my head and will have to listen back to again to make proper sense of it. I enjoy following your learning journey with the Regenesis group but sometimes I feel like I’m playing catchup to concepts and nuggets of wisdom you’ve come across between episodes, and I need a second listen to really tune into what’s being spoken about. Also I listened while doing the dishes, which might not be the best time to process meta-level thinking tools that I’m hearing for the first time!!

    Re: Originating Impulse, I think it would be remiss to not include Mollison’s ‘Prime Directive’ in our investigations. I don’t know where it comes from, but it is always quoted verbatim so he obviously wrote it down at some point, and is as follows: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.” (Source:

    Interestingly, in this interview Ben mentions that “permaculture provided [him] with a set of questions, which are the same questions he is trying to answer with the work he is doing today, whilst not providing the “mental tools” he needed at that time . I found this a very noteworthy statement – I have often in my head formulated permaculture as a ‘narrative’, a ‘way of seeing the world’, or a ‘set of questions’ which challenges the mainstream and strives for something else, because this is the way I most actively use it in my everyday life. However, these terms suck for use in an elevator pitch because they come across either too vague or too exclusive! My new favourite def. of pc, as of last week and I want to keep it for a while, is as ‘a field of study’ (trying to find ways to create human systems with greater ecological harmony/of meeting human needs while increasing ecological health). The benefit of this term is that it implies there are many roles: researchers, students, practitioners, social activists etc., all of which exist in pc. It also implies that it is asking some seriously big questions, none of which have straightforward answers and all of which are going to take a lot of time and energy to answer, and which can be tackled from multiple different directions.

    I know I preach to the choir which much of this, but I felt compelled to emphasise that the hugeness of the questions the pc community is trying to answer is what keeps us all engaged, motivated and still talking to each other as colleagues! Perhaps it was the case in the 80s and 90s that pc represented itself as having the answers to those Qs – I don’t know, I wasn’t there and can’t put myself in those shoes – but by the time I inherited the pc concepts and toolkit in 2015 it was very much my understanding, which will have been facilitated by the teaching process (although I know everyone leaves a PDC with slightly different understandings depending on context), that permaculture was in no way a ‘done deal’, it didn’t have everything ‘sorted’, and there was still a lot of work in trying to get it right every time.

    Now I guess the task ahead is formulating these questions (that I’ve referred to a lot but not articulated!!). I think the question IS the originating impulse, the prime directive. Perhaps you, and others here, will feel the need to strip back what’s already out there and try to go a couple layers deeper towards an innate essence, or perhaps reformulating the original writings of Mollison as questions is good enough. All I know is that getting the right questions is the next nodal intervention along our co-coppicing journey 😉

    I’m really interested to see what other folk put forward on this.

    1. Excellent comment, Finn! Definitely stick with this podcast. Listen over and over. Ben has articulated something deeply insightful.

      I like your “field of study” definition, but want to seek your thoughts on permaculture as a ‘field of practice’. Does that shift anything for you? In general, much of your comment resonates with a piece I’ve been writing that recontextualizes permaculture. That it is a field of practice is a big part of it. I also think you are right on the target with the prime directive. Part of what Ben is saying in this interview is that we’ve not emphasized the personal transformation side of permaculture. I think that is the core of it actually and the prime directive is the germination of that seed. Permaculture is indeed aiming for something much larger. I hope to share the new piece I’ve been working on in regards to that soon.

    2. Hey Finn, you’re not alone (riffing Jason’s encouragement too). I reckon I’ve replayed the companion interviews with the other Regenesis principals too at least 3-4 times. While not doing the dishes (!) and with quiet reflection time in between. Only in that way have I been able to let their clarity really speak too me. This one will be no different I expect. Another absolute gem from the curatorial genius of Dan Palmer.

      1. Ahh, time to focus followed by quiet reflection time, that thing of great myth that parents of tiny people often dream about, and barely believe ever existed or could again exist! ha 😉

        Jason, I wrote a long and drawling answer here, luckily I got interrupted and had to leave the computer and by the time I came back my thoughts had crystallised much better. For me, calling it a field of study (or even a discipline?) is more true because it brings with it the narrative of seeking knowledge by asking questions about the very essence of being and experimenting on them. Contained within that narrative is the idea of the ever-expanding knowledge base – ‘the more you know, the more you know you don’t know’. I think there are many fields of practice associated with the field of study which all share certain commonalities but definitely require different focus and skillsets. Perhaps fields of practice could be considered different types of experimentation, or perhaps fields of practice could mean something more like Holmgren’s seven Domains.

        In short, study = pursuit of knowledge whilst practice = application of knowledge. There is clearly already a great deal to practically do with all that we already know about this thing we call permaculture, but we can also acknowledge that there’s far more out there to learn than what we already know. Bringing it back to the elevator pitch, I also think that ‘field of study’ invites a more inquisitive mind than ‘field of practice’ – imagine the difference in response between someone who is interested and says “Great, how can I start learning?” (A) compared to “Great, what can I do next?” (B). I think A will sooner take the journey within themselves, whilst B will more likely want to be shown the nearest demonstration garden. I’m not suggesting one is better or worse, but they have different functions and I know with the way you’re thinking about refreshing your PDCs that this subtle difference could have large ripples.

        If you want help putting the finishing touches on your piece then hit me up, I’ve helped with some of Dan’s work and he’s always very complimentary 🙂 you can ask him for my email.

        1. Great points, Finn. Thanks for thinking on this with me. I like how you explain “field of study”. It has an inward characteristic, which is something I encourage in permaculture. Field of practice has an outward quality in the sense of application. I also like the idea of permaculture posing a “set of questions”. That has been my process. Lots of internal and external questioning, never ceasing.

          Ultimately, I think with something as aspirational as permaculture, it has to be both internal and external and maybe more. We need inward and outward forms of study and practice. I think the practice of designing and building (even just little design decisions implemented in ones daily life) is the space in which permaculture becomes a discipline that sharpens ones mental faculties and shapes ones character, so maybe discipline is a good term after all. Toby Hemenway and I discussed this idea of permaculture as a ‘discipline’ a lot. His argument was that permaculture doesn’t look like other disciplines that have a singular focus and typically many levels of study and practice. My argument was, well, what if we made it look more like that? Which is not to say we should make it an academic discipline (I tried that in academia, it’s not the way). I think it’s more like an evolutionary discipline for self and world improvement.

          We have to try things out in order to stumble and course correct, which I think is the experience of life in general. That’s the developmental process. I want to develop the proper guidance that leads one to use that process as a pathway to continue to improve oneself and the results one gets from ones work in the world, thereby improving the community of life for all. I also hope to provide something for those with the outwardly projected idea of improving the community of life. And ideally that sends them within and without, with a process that allows them to continually grow and improve. Or something like that. 🙂

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