“I believe self criticism is essential so long as it is balanced by affirmation and recognition of self worth” – David Holmgren
In August 2017 I arrived at Polam Farm, Telangana State, India – a wonderland of biological diversity, cultural-intersection and diverse manifestations of ‘Permaculture Design’. Four months later, Polam Farm would be the host venue for the 2017 International Permaculture Convergence. An idyllic case study of all that is strong and all that is weak within the Permaculture Movement.
I led the Agriculture Team in the cultivation of vegetable crops for the IPC and associated Permaculture courses. It was every kind of challenging and all sorts of beautiful. Despite dramatic shortages in physical and human resources, Aranya Agriculture Alternatives and the team of international volunteers defied the odds and established biological, sanitary and accomodation systems plus a variety of other facilities to host almost 1000 participants from around India and the world for five days.
I was there to learn and to work and to live in service to something much bigger than myself. I was also there to speak about Making Permaculture Stronger during the Convergence. [Note: italicised quotes are taken from the transcript of my first session at IPC17]
I am here to act as a voice for a collective and share ideas that are not my own. I am here to tell a story. A beautiful story. A love story. A story of commitment and faith. A story with themes that will hopefully inspire and almost certainly challenge. It is a story that, as always, is part of a much great story – and where I pick up the story is in the land of my people – the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Some years ago I was fortunate enough to fall in with the likes of Dan Palmer, James Andrews, Louise Shaw, Pete West and Courtney Brooke (among others) on a journey around the exploration of Permaculture’s weak links.
This explorative journey was to form the foundational narrative that would act as a vehicle for my dialogue at the IPC – a means to open up a Convergence-long conversation about where and how the Permaculture Movement is falling short, and what we might all be able to do to make permaculture stronger.
But wait, wait, wait – what do we mean by stronger? Why would we need to strengthen Permaculture? This movement, so laden with potential, so utterly inspiring, so overwhelmed with momentum – surely things are ticking along just fine? Everyone who comes across Permaculture falls in love with it. Our ecologies so desperately need it. Our cultures so desperately need it. It is so potent, so ground breaking, so world changing. So beautifully functional. So functionally beautiful.
Permaculture. This loaded term. This concept so shallowly understood. This stigmatised group. This cult of personality. This unqualified ensemble. This evangelical mission, so out of touch with the status quo reality…
These are not necessarily true criticisms, but they are not uncommon. So what is it about Permaculture that lends itself to such critique from both inside and out?
Those of us engaged in the Making Permaculture Stronger project are all involved in the Permaculture world to some degree. We got into it for good reasons, and we’re still in it for good reasons.
What we all share is a deep, honest and sincere love for Permaculture. We share the deep faith that the artisan skill of refined regenerative design is a key to the future of the human race – not in the sense of endurance or mere survival, but in the sense of flourishing – of thriving in deep relationship with the rest of our world.
But our faith is not blind. No system is perfect. No culture without capacity for evolution. No movement without need of iteration. Every system has its weak links. Every system demands critique.
This story is rooted in one core underlying acknowledgement – that Permaculture is not perfect. It is not without capacity for evolution. It is not without need of iteration.
We humbly acknowledge that Permaculture, in all its beauty and vigor, struggles with all manner of weak links – some with the potential to cripple the entire movement. Weak links that must be addressed if Permaculture is to fulfill its potential and continue to facilitate a transition towards regenerative human culture.
And that is OK! It is a great thing. A brilliant thing! Nothing ever achieves a state of perfection. As we look into all natural systems, our greatest of teachers, we can witness a constant evolution – an enduring cycle of feedback that informs all growth and adaptation.
Permaculture, as a modality of thought and a system of design, demands of us a number of things. It demands that we accept feedback. It demands that we creatively respond to change…
The Making Permaculture Stronger movement is about doing something that on close inspection may actually be rather radical. It is about applying Permaculture to Permaculture itself.
In the interests of authenticity and integrity, the Making Permaculture Stronger (MPS) project exists to bring light to our shortcomings – to hold up a mirror that reflects our processes, ethical frameworks and modes of operation back at us – and to encourage the wide-spread application of Permaculture Ethics and Principles to personal and collective Permaculture practice around the globe.
It is not like MPS is unique in this regard – there are, of course, people all over the world engaging in such critical reflection. MPS is joining this conversation and striving to make it one of significant importance that is given due attention wherever possible.
Making Permaculture Stronger is a space where permaculture practitioners come together with a spirit of strengthening the design system of permaculture by clarifying its weaknesses and coordinating efforts to address them.
MPS is about slowing down, taking stock and sharing with honesty about where we are at.
This sharing happens with a positive focus on improving permaculture. We are interested in clarifying what is problematic only to the extent it will assist our subsequent efforts, or the efforts of others, to make it less problematic.
All sharings and communication within MPS are focused on patterns, trends, gaps and so on within permaculture and are not focused on the perceived failings of particular individuals.
Throughout the MPS journey, we have identified a number of weak links. Below is a non-exhaustive list that I have been adding to over time. A number of these weak links came forward from others during our time together at the IPC. This list is by no means definitive. It may be that in your place and space, some of these weak links are not present. But the important thing to acknowledge is that in some place, or many places, they are present and are having an effect on what is now a global movement. Some of them may challenge you, so I encourage you to explore them with an open heart and to go gently on yourself:
- The inadequate explanation and neglect of Design Process in literature and education: Given that the Design Process is the vehicle for actually manifesting sound regenerative solutions, Design Process is distressingly neglected in most Permaculture ‘Design’ Courses and many permaculture texts. ‘The Curriculum’ suggests little more than a few sessions focused explicitly on ‘Design Process’.
- Separation of Design and Implementation: Linear descriptions of Design Process in the literature tend to separate the cyclic/braided process of design into parts – in particular it is theorised that one completes a Design before moving on to Implementation. Dan Palmer is exploring the weaknesses of this pattern in this inquiry.
- The dominance of rational intelligence over emotional intelligence: While offered more credence within the Permaculture world than other schools of thought, emotional intelligence is still widely shunned in favor of reason and logic.
- The perception of Permaculture as just an agricultural technique: The true brilliance of Permaculture is the wide-scope of applicability. Today Permaculture is still widely interpreted as an advanced agricultural system, rather than a holistic system of design that can be applied to all systems – from personal lifestyle to inter-personal dynamics to societal re-design. Or to go even deeper: a holistic, integrated, biological life-way.
- The lack of documented evidence under ‘Permaculture’: While Permaculture has been practiced in its consolidated form for decades, there is still a considerable lack of record-keeping and cohesive scientific evidence for many of its theoretical claims. Record-keeping and out-sourcing of findings is rarely stressed as a critical component of the Design Process. Permaculture dialogue also trends toward failing to acknowledge and integrate the documented evidence of other associated fields eg. Agroecology. When it comes to changing mainstream systems, the world needs substantial evidence.
- The cult-atmosphere, dogma and idolotry: There are parts of the
Permaculture Movement that veer dangerously close to idolotry. The esoteric nature of some Permaculture dialogue and the ways in which more evangelical types can discuss the concept can trend toward a cult-atmosphere. This is dangerous territory.
- Permaculture Design Courses: In general, Permaculture Design Courses lack enough attention on Design and trend toward being just ‘Permaculture Courses’. Design as an artisan skill needs to be fostered to a much greater degree. Generally speaking, PDCs still trend toward a land-management focus – the curriculum allocating one day to inadequately explore the potential of ecological design applied to social dynamics.
- The lack of post-PDC pathways: The failure to ‘Catch and Store’ the energy generated during the transformational experience of a PDC. Too often course participants leave a course ready to change the world, only to emerge into a post-PDC world typified by a lack of networked Permaculture projects, a lack of support, and few identified pathways of engagement for future development.
- Inaccessibility of Permaculture education and the stigma against public-education streams: Often the demographic interested in PDCs is more low-income and many are turned away by the price. On the flip side of the economic equation, Permaculture educators get paid inadequately to facilitate the courses. The economic model is unsustainable. Additionally, a widespread stigma against engaging with public-education initiatives means no State-support to enable participants to acquire financial support, Permaculture education to be subsidised, and tutors be paid adequately.
- Voluntary poverty mentalities: A lack of adequate financial reciprocation sees many living in states of voluntary poverty or constantly seeking supplementary income, which in the long term inhibits capacities to apply oneself fully to the mission of regenerating human and planetary health.
- The norm of shoestring budgets and low-income detrimenting economic sustainability: The issues outlined in the two points above impact the sustainability and prosperity of many Permaculture initiatives. Financially inhibited, many projects struggle to achieve the kind of wide-spread impact that they desire.
- ‘Fair Share’ as the ambiguous third ethic: The Third Ethic – sometimes dubbed ‘Redistribution of Surplus’, sometimes ‘Equitable Distribution’, sometimes ‘Fair Share’, sometimes ‘Parity’, sometimes any other interpretation. It is the concept of Fair Share that encourages the total redesign of human social systems and seems to offer viable means for ensuring both Earth Care and People Care. ‘Fair Share’ inspires radical action, but is so often weakened by ambiguity.
- The inadequate exploration and embodiment of People Care: Too many Permaculture initiatives struggle due to a lack of People Care. This may stem from inadequate exploration of People Care and social dynamics within many PDCs. Without People Care, everything falls over. To describe People Care within a PDC as one of the most critical aspects of Permaculture and to then fail to explore it in favour of a deep focus on water harvesting, Zone 1 Gardens and Food Forestry is the gravest of oversights.
- No ‘Self Care’ ethic: Or the lack of Self Care discussed within the People Care ethic. It is commonly said that one must begin with Zone 00 and the development of self, however it is uncommon to find self-exploration facilitated within PDC’s, discussed in Permaculture literature, or explored in forums. Zone 00 is a relative unknown in the Permaculture world, often considered fringe, with little support or direction offered to those wanting to engage in deep Zone 00 work. The interconnection of inner and outer ecologies demands more attention.
- The lack of networks and systems for facilitating mentorship and intergenerational sharing: It is not uncommon to find aligned groups and natural allies in close proximity to each other, with little or no knowledge of the others activity. The opportunities for collaboration and mentorship are everywhere, but are dependent on the enhancement of networks within the Permaculture movement. Networking the movement is emerging as one of the most important tasks of the immediate era.
- The importance of ‘spirit’ and the ‘sacred’, and the difficulty of articulating these concepts without alienating people: There is something about alive beings that many people summate using the term ‘spirit’. And there is much considered too important to be interferred with that many people summate using the term ‘sacred’. There is a necessity to refine the art of communication around these concepts so as not to alienate potential allies who may be turned off by abrupt exposure to ideas that are not part of their cultural worldview.
- The aversion to international organisation: Despite the global nature of the Permaculture Movement today, there appears to be a widespread resistance to international networking beyond the tri-annual International Permaculture Convergence. The focus on grassroots action tends to mean a failure to acknowledge the global nature of the movement, the responsibility that entails, and the potential of global support networks.
- The risks involved with a lack of standards for educators: Mollison’s idea of ‘just get out there and teach’ offers much for the dispersal of information and tools. However, without any kind of agreed standards for educators or any Code of Ethics, there are risks that include inadequate educational experiences; ambiguity around what participants are paying for; the spread of misinformation; and the potential for unsafe learning environments.
- ‘Technique of the Week’ mentality: The distribution of various Techniques via weekly mailouts, short YouTube videos and various PDC handouts is a high-risk pattern that can spread techniques as if they are universally applicable. By focusing more on technique and less on exercising discernment to determine appropriate technique, there is great risk of the wide-spread implementation of contextually inappropriate techniques.
- Not acknowledging and confronting weak links: There is an unfortunate trend away from ‘Applying Self-Regulation and Accepting Feedback’ within the Permaculture Movement – both personally and collectively. The result is that many of Permaculture’s weak links have not been adequately addressed and continue to manifest in literature and education initiatives.
Big list, isn’t it? The distressing thing is that it is by no means complete. We haven’t even touched on questions around whether culture-wide issues such as patriarchy and colonialism are being problematically perpetuated within the permaculture community.
When thinking holistically about these weak links, they begin to feel much more like symptoms. Could it be that they are the manifestations of deeper issues at the heart of ‘Permaculture’? If so, should we not be going deeper – exploring root cause and underlying patterns? If these weak links are symptoms, what is the pattern that connects them?
We’re not 100% sure about it, yet. However, myself and others in the MPS community have a growing suspicion that the underlying pattern relates to what is most unique to Permaculture: the design process.
The design process has been at the core of the Making Permaculture Stronger dialogue for the last few years and aspects of it have been explored in Dan Palmer’s Inquiry 1 and Inquiry 2. Conscious design is Permaculture’s commonly articulated ‘How’ for achieving the desired goal of ‘mimicking and harmonising with natural patterns’. However, what conscious design looks like on Permaculture-paper may not be the appropriate means for achieving those goals:
The commonly communicated Permaculture Design Process does not mimic ecological generation processes (see here). The likely implications are design outcomes that never quite achieve the desired harmonisation with ecological patterns or the aliveness of living systems. The common articulation of Permaculture Design Process can be deemed inauthentic to Permaculture’s core ecological foundations.
Additionally, whatever Design Process is being embraced is rarely applied to anything beyond the landscape. Talks are rarely Permaculture designed, communications are rarely permaculture designed, learning experiences are rarely permaculture designed, social systems are rarely permaculture designed, conferences are rarely permaculture designed, personal lives are rarely permaculture designed. The Permaculture Movement is not being permaculture designed.
Could it be that the way Permaculture Design Process is articulated, dispersed and (not) applied is having undesirable consequences? Are these weak links actually indicators of a need for deeper questioning? Is the core of Permaculture in need of iteration?
Day 2 of the Convergence saw me preparing nervously for my presentation. I had been overly-busy in the field preparing for the event and I was anxious about how the content of my talk would be received. How would people respond to the suggestion that Permaculture Design Process is ecologically inauthentic?
I put forward an invitation:
My invitation to you is to take up this challenge and run with it. To say “yeah, if this big, bold, beautiful thing called Permaculture is going to pull off what it is capable of pulling off, then we need to walk the talk and apply Permaculture to Permaculture.” To say, “No, actually, we haven’t got it all figured out.”
What we’ve got going on here in this global movement, this almost untouchable, unstoppable groundswell of ecological activism is so desperately needed and so brilliantly viable. We have the capacity right here in our hearts and minds and hands and relationships to bring about radical change to the way humanity participates in the systems it is a part of. We also have strong rhetoric – commonly communicated ethics, principles and modalities.
Within that rhetoric lies a code of conduct – one that is fluid, yes, and unbinding, sure. But if we are going to talk about permaculture, write about it, teach it – then we better practice it. And if we want to be practicing it authentically, then that rhetoric demands that we accept feedback and iterate accordingly.
It was an invitation taken up with gusto throughout the rest of the IPC. This session added fuel to the fire of a dynamic and exciting discourse which endured throughout the event and beyond.
My session was a high-level challenge to our community to question our weakest links. I facilitated subsequent break-out sessions that were rich, beautiful and brought together a wide diversity of participants to engage in peer-to-peer critique. The willingness to get involved in the conversation, whether it was in these sessions or around the bonfire at night, was deeply heartwarming for me and all others involved.
To be chosen to present the original session on the final day of the IPC, and for it to be attended by an even greater number than the first time around, was a great honor and to me demonstrated the timeliness of this dialogue. The climate seems ripe for these conversations. Perhaps we can move boldly forward, unified in our fallibility and our commitment to constructive development.
By no means do I want to take credit for sowing the seeds of critique at the IPC because by no means was that the case. For me, the most encouraging thing about the entire IPC experience was the emergent theme of exploring specific weak links in deeper detail.
Throughout the Convergence three deeply powerful sessions focused on ‘De-colonising Permaculture’ attracted huge amounts of multi-cultural participation in a challenging, provoking and constructive dialogue around breaking down racism, colonial trends and accessibility issues.
Andy Goldring, an avid UK permaculturalist, presented at the Conference around global networking and actually changing the world. He was also an engaged participant in my sessions, offering critical insight on the characteristics of Permaculture globally. Andy is one of the driving forces behind the Permaculture CoLab – an initiative focused on strengthening the weak link of poor global networks. The CoLab facilitated a number of experiences throughout the week that were aimed at fostering engagement in the CoLab, but also at exploring social governance systems such as Sociocracy. They were attended by large numbers of people – an encouraging sign for the future of global networking and social dynamics.
One of the Conference panels saw a dozen of the most potent female change-makers – including Padma Koppula, Rosemary Morrow, Robina McCurdy, Starhawk and Vandana Shiva – speaking to the question ‘Are women leading the change?’ It was powerful, inspiring, and focused on exploring the weak links around gender equality within the movement. I am sure no person present would deny that the raising of female leaders not only within the Permaculture Movement, but all around the world, has and will do remarkable things for the strengthening of all manner of weak links – especially around People Care, Self Care, social design and emotional intelligence.
Rafter Sass Ferguson – whose work with Liberation Ecology is addressing numerous weak links including sound evidence and bridging the gap between Permaculture and related fields – facilitated a panel exploring the relationship between Permaculture and Science. One of the resounding themes was the significance of incorporating record-keeping and record-sharing as a critical component of the Design Process.
Charlie Brennan and Bridget O’Brien – brilliant design thinkers working to align Permaculture Design Process more authentically with natural generation processes and focused on reconnecting people with place – facilitated a panel around Radical Re-Design which explored the reality that designs are in place everywhere and in all systems, and that one never designs but only ever re-designs. The conversation moved from land-management through to social re-design and was a refreshing taste of what I perceive as next-generation Permaculture communication.
Eunice Neeves, who has been travelling around Australia engaging with a diverse range of pioneers in the interest of recording and collating resources for widespread distribution, hosted a session on ‘Accelerating Succession’ focused on doing everything possible to pass on information and support to the emerging understory. I was fortunate enough to join Eunice, Courtney Brooke, Robina McCurdy, Jillian Hovey, Oliver Kristevic, and Starhawk on a panel about the importance of Intergenerational Succession. It was a powerful panel that explored the highs, lows and essential nature of mentorship and intergenerational relationships.
I could not go further without mentioning the remarkable group of volunteers that came together at Polam Farm in the lead up to the event. A huge number of experienced, brilliant, well-versed Permaculturalists came to the Convergence and the conversations with them were fascinating. But the deepest, most invigorating, most enlivening conversations happened within the group of committed volunteers who poured their hearts into creating that event. We endured all kinds of adversity on that farm – we witnessed Permaculture design at its finest and its poorest. In those volunteers I found a family to weather the storms and bask in the beauty with. In them I witnessed so much of what makes Permaculture so brilliant. So much potential for our future.
These examples are but a few of the wide-ranging and highly engaging conversations that took place on that dusty farm in India. The experience affirmed for me that while Permaculture struggles with its fair share of weak links it is also upheld by an abundance of strengths.
There are people all around the world deeply engaged in the strengthening of Permaculture as a whole. There are those brilliant, passionate, driven Permaculturalists out there who are not afraid to cast a critical eye over the movement they are engaged in – to not only critique the movement but also themselves and their own practice.
Just as the tender form of the seedling exists in continuous response to environmental feedback, so too must we respond to the feedback we are receiving as a movement – both from within and without. And the exciting part is not just that we must respond to feedback, but that we are.
Maybe not everyone just yet and maybe not with full force, but slowly and surely Permaculturalists around the world are heeding the call – mimicking their biological counterparts and adapting to their ever-changing world.
We talk about how one of Permaculture’s great strengths is its capacity to be applied to all kinds of systems.
Well, we have to apply it to our own. We need to work on the Zone 00 of the Permaculture Movement.
It is not an option. We’re obligated by everything we believe in to take up the great challenges of exploring our weak links. We are duty bound by our love. It’s not just that we can, but that we must actively participate in the improvement and evolution of Permaculture as both an artisan skill and a social movement that could change the world.
In my experience as one outspoken about the urgent need to explore our fallibilities, the response has generally been one of mild confusion followed in time by enthusiastic commitment. When the mirror is held up and the obligation is put bluntly on the table, few Permaculturalists have turned away from the challenge.
I really applaud you all for initiating this and holding up the
mirror and saying ‘hey guys, look at yourselves. Look at what you’re
saying. Look at what you’re teaching. Look at what you’re doing. Is
that really the best you can do?’ And so some of us older ones in the
beginning were a little bit confronted by it, but once we embraced the
process, it’s been really exciting, and I think that it will make
Trish Allen – Elder of Permaculture in NZ – said mid-session at IPC17 India
In India they leapt into an excited conversation around a roaring fire surrounded by an international community of regenerative practitioners – the kind of conversation that kicks sparks up into the air and dances merrily into the early hours of the morning. Some thanked me for saying all I had said. To those I said ‘thank you for not turning away’.
We’ve got all manner of weaknesses, no doubt. But we’ve also got all the nous, grit, passion, love and know-how to explore those weaknesses and understand what they are telling us. Maybe even to re-design what we hold most dear. Maybe even to re-design Permaculture.
In the quiet moments, as I looked on at the fire-lit faces of these agents of change – some of considerable renown and some totally innocuous – all moving to the beat of an impromptu band, I felt a deep stirring in my heart…
Dave Hursthouse is a New Zealand based Ecological Designer, Facilitator and Educator. He brings a critical, and revolutionary eye to all that he engages with and is resolutely committed to improving senescent human systems via wholesome processes of design. Dave is enthusiastically focused on sowing the seeds of passion and courage among those world-shakers and world-makers dedicated to developing human systems more in tune with wider ecological patterns. He is passionate about transformative learning, forest ecologies, systemic patterns, critical theory, design philosophy, design process and radically creative change-making. Dave considers the Permaculture Movement to be one of the most potential-laden social movements of all time and is determined to see that potential acted on all around the world with humility, authenticity and integrity.
Dave will be speaking about Making Permaculture Stronger and the themes explored above at the upcoming New Zealand Permaculture Hui in May 2018.