Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Permaculture Challenges

I strongly recommend reading the comments in response to this recent thought-provoking blog by Sharon Astyk at her site (linked below).

Permaculture Future?: Part I

by Sharon Astyk June 29th, 2009

Recently, Dmitry Orlov offered a selection of possible topics for a talk he was giving, and several of them dealt with the ubiquity of permaculture as the articulated solution to our present crisis. Orlov’s point was that a consensus seems to be emerging that permaculture strategies - particularly the Transition movement - have emerged as the de facto solution to our collective crisis without a lot of public conversation or questioning. I didn’t get to hear Dmitry’s commentary on this subject (although I can guess what some of it would be), but it pushed me to begin a subject I’ve been gently avoiding for a while.

Now I am commonly described as a permaculturist, and I’ve no objection, in fact it rather pleases me - I generally don’t worry much about how people describe me, and this is one of the nicer ways. Officially, I’m not sure I qualify - I’ve never taken a full design course myself, and am mostly self-taught. I’ve taught in a few design classes, but have never sought certification for one reason - I don’t think of myself primarily as a designer, at least in a classical sense. That may seem strange, since a lot of what I do is design work - I teach garden design, Adapting in Place (ie, designing your life to work with less money and energy), etc… But permaculture design is formal design of a particular kind - deeply visual, deeply concerned with maps and images. I’m not a terribly visual person - my own strengths have to do with the translation of the world into words, not images. There are too many pictures in permaculture design for me ;-).

Moreover, I tend not to sign up quickly for membership in “ists” or “isms” - even ones that I approve of deeply. The only club I officially belong to is the order of agrarians, and only because I want to meet Wendell Berry someday ;-).

Despite my lack of official signing up (I have the same issues with joining the Kantians ;-)) I do approve of permaculture in a broad sense. I like many of the things it has brought to our society as a whole, and I like many permaculturists. I can think of far worse principles from which to build a new society. Moreover, I give enormous credit to Rob Hopkins and Transition practitioners, who have essentially created the only viable, large scale alternate model for dealing with a coming crisis - that’s quite an accomplishment. One of the reasons I have not written this post before is that I really don’t want to criticize or undermine permaculture and transition, which have been fairly successful - Transition astonishing successful in a short time - in energizing a lot of people with a new idea and vision. Given our shortage of good solutions for responding, and the need for coherent solutions, I don’t want to seem as though I’m sniping at something I admire and value.

That said, however, I admit to some doubts about the political viability of permaculture as a solution for our collective crisis, doubts I’m going to articulate here, in the interest of promoting a larger discussion about permaculture, and about the possibility of movements in general as a strategy of mitigation. I do want to be clear that I am not trying to undermine the enormous efforts made by people involved in permaculture and Transition, nor do I want to see them discontinue their efforts. But I do feel that there are questions to be discussed and answered.

I should be absolutely clear here - all of my concerns about permaculture are about elements of permaculture’s presentation and emphasis - not about the overall goals of Transition or the permaculture movement. That is, even if I don’t qualify as an official permaculturist, even if I critique them, there is no question I want to work with permaculturists - their emphasis on scale, on integrating food production and local economies, their emphasis on appropriate technology - all of these things are, I think, absolutely right. The question is not whether permaculture is bad - I would deny that outright. The question for me is whether permaculture and its offshoots, as they are presented and emphasized now, can do what they would like to do - make a smooth (or smoother) transition than any other method through tough times.

The first one is a philosophical one - can permaculture as a movement actually attract enough mainstream people to really and truly make a difference? This to me is a sincere and serious question, and perhaps the deepest issue to be addressed. When I have given talks at permaculture classes, attended group meetings, or given talks to permaculturist audiences, I’ve noticed a pervasive consistency among the attendees. While there are exceptions, and I can’t speak for permaculturist gatherings outside the US, the ones I’ve attended (and I’ve attended quite a few in different areas of the country) have had some common denominators. The attendees tend to be white and middle class, or if they are not middle class, they are very young, and immersed in alternative culture. I don’t mean to stereotype, but most of the people who attend these groups tend to visually signal their attachment to historical leftist or alternative communities. There are plenty of exceptions, but the predominance is of grey pony tails, yoga mats, priuses, flowered skirts and lefty bumperstickers. These are not bad things - I grew up in precisely this culture and am quite fond of it. But the absence of trucks with gun racks, right wing bumper stickers, non-white people and other signifiers of ideological is somewhat disheartening, if you are looking for a universal movement. At the Albany permaculture gathering, I was discussing with one of the other participants how pleased I was that the demographic involved more younger people, only to be mocked by the speaker, Larry Santoyo, for praising the diversity of the nearly all-white group. And he was right - my standards have just been lowered over time ;-).

I realize that permaculture has a somewhat wider audience in the UK and Australia, and that these may be primarily American objections. The US, for example, has never gotten permaculture into any soap opera ;-). I also recognize that both are comparatively new here in the US, and that the early adopters don’t necessarily describe who will come to the fold in the long term. Both are meant to be deeply flexible and adaptive to local conditions, and it is possible that they will become so. There is a case to be made that some elements of leftist culture - universal therapy, yoga and tofu, for example, have permeated into the mainstream of American culture quite gracefully. There is a case to be made, however, on the other side, that other elements have not.

My claim is not that permaculture as an idea is ideologically leftist, or particularly hippyish, but that its practice has been, at least in the US. And this, I think is, quite frankly, a bad thing if the goal is the creation of a mass movement. Frankly, having grown up the child of baby boomers, my own tastes don’t run that way. I find myself in sympathy with people who aren’t attracted to the Transition Training’s emphasis on visualizing, community building activities, etc… My own entry into visualization exercises and trust-building dates back to summer camps as a child, and the whole thing makes me a bit queasy. When the words “get in a circle” are uttered, I tend to start wandering off. I recognize this may be my own personal design flaw, but I have no interest in ever building a Web of Resilience, and I think it extremely unlikely that many of my neighbors would be interested as well, or would take time off work and home life for it. I’m sure some of them would, but the emphasis of many permaculturists on the language of popular therapy and summer-camp style activities designed to create consensus, build trust and visualize the sustainable future are, well a turn off for whole classes of people. They will speak to other groups - but the question of who you are speaking to is, of course, the essential one.

Even the language of “acknowledging one’s sense of loss and grief” is one that is tough for a lot of people to swallow, despite the pervasiveness of Oprah and Dr. Phil. I think there is a real question about how much public discussion of one’s feelings is going to be attractive in different populations and communities. A friend of mine recently attended Transition Training in his town, and said to me “there was good stuff, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to join a cult.” This is not the impression one wants to cultivate ;-). I make no claim that his experience was universal, but I’ve heard more than few people express similar sentiments from different parts of the US and different countries.

There are countries in the world and a few regions of the US in which a movement that uses tools that primarily appeal to the crunchy left will be successful. Speaking as an American, for America as a whole, however, I do not think the entire US is one of them, nor are most regions. I think it is important to recognize that while permaculture itself is not a leftist movement philosophically, an extended diet of bearded and ponytailed permaculture teachers and enthusiasts ;-) making comments about the Republicans will tend to associate the movement with the politics of its public faces.

The painful reality of American politics for us leftists is that at no time as the American public cast open its arms and said “we were just waiting for you to invite us to join with you” ;-). Associate permaculture to closely with the American left, and the reality is that many people won’t join.

Is there a solution that problem? I suspect so, perhaps some attention to the design of permaculture’s PR image. Many (not all) of the people who embraced permaculture were mostly on the left, at least to a degree (thank G-d for Bill Mollison and Larry Santoyo, who offer a cheerful confirmation that permaculture really isn’t politically associated with one side or another, and provide hard drinking, reality pushing, capitalist (in Larry’s case, anyway), versions of the things itself ;-) - I may not be a capitalist and I’ve long since lost any tolerance for hard drinking, but I find them refreshing and funny, which is helpful), and they certainly know things we need to know. And most of the permaculturists I know are more complex than that - Larry Santoyo was a California Cop, Toby Hemenway a scientist…. that is, they aren’t what they are widely perceived to be. But perceptions matter more than reality in some cases, and polling people who are not part of the club, the widespread perception I find is that permaculture is another hippie thing, to go with the “liberal left behind movement” reputation of peak oil. Whether it is fair or not, it matters. At a minimum, I’d be careful about the language associations and techniques one adapts - I don’t think that evoking meditation or trust building is a really good idea, say, for Transition Mississippi, or even Transition rural upstate NY if the goal is critical mass.

My main suggestion would be that at least in the US, Transition movements begin engaging religious communities on a serious level. I give a lot of talks at churches and synagogues and other religious communities. Many of those communities are already engaging in the nuts and bolts work of responding to an *existing* Long Emergency - they are doing the marrying and burying, the preaching of moralities, both productive and not. They run the food pantries, the battered women’s shelters, the emergency funds. They find clothing for the naked, food for the hungry and offer sanctuary and public appeals when violence breaks out. This is the nitty gritty work of responding to the crisis as it unfolds, and it must be done simultaneously with the building of the “better model.” I would argue that some of (not all) the best people to make the case for Transition to are the people who are already on teh ground in our cities and towns doing the work that desperately needs more hands.

My other suggestion is that permaculture groups seek out people who are *already* doing the work of sustainability, but don’t get any credit for it, because they are poor. Some do this, but the fact that these groups tend to be mostly made up of middle class white folks suggest to me that that asking the people who are already living in the city with no electricity, because the bill gets cut off every April, and the people who are already dumpster diving and making their livings of the waste of the city, and the people who are already stretching every resource because they have no choice, or urban farming because that’s just what you do where they come from ought to be invested in the local permaculture community. And it will not do to go among them as missionaries and teach them - let them teach you. You may have done the food stamp budget challenge one month - they’ve been doing it for years, and can tell you how to keep eating when the money runs out. I do not want to see something so valuable become the territory only of an affluent middle class who can afford to pay a few thousand bucks and take two weeks off work to take a design seminar.

The second question/critique I’d offer is this - is it possible to imagine permaculture responding successfully in situations not of peaceful exigency, of gentle shifts, but of violent ones? I think there is little doubt that some places will experience violent shifts - by this I mean war, civil or otherwise, rioting, vast increases in criminal activity and violence, and civic disruption. Some of those places may not be in the US ;-). Recently Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg made public their correspondence about whether Transition should incorporate emergency preparedness into its training and work - it was an excellent conversation, and long overdue, but it inadvertantly exposed some real limitations to Transition’s planning - Hopkins’s conclusion was that perhaps it could begin to do so, and his first thought was that it could include camping and wilderness survival skills. As useful as these might be to many people, and as good a thought as that is, it struck me as a measure of how far off from dealing with a truly disastrous situation we are - it is true some people may retreat into woods as refugees, but far more likely to be needed are plans for quelling local violence, building emergency shelters and providing emergency medical services, and urban survival. Hopkins noted that he saw little way to address preparedness measures because they were traditional “top down” applications - ie, provided by the state. But if Transition’s bottom-up structures are overridden the moment there is a major crisis by existing top-down structures, then we can assume that we will no longer be living in a society governed by permaculture. I realize that the long term goal is for permaculture models to replace existing structures, smoothly and gradually.

The problem is lack of time - historically institutions that have done very well in tough times have been those that had something to offer people in exigency - that took up the work of dealing with the crisis. If a crisis comes before the town council or the local government is replaced by loving permaculturists, permaculturist movements must offer a compelling case that they can handle a rough transition better than existing infrastructure - that means heavy emphasis on preparedness. Religious institutions have known this - think how powerful the relief institutions and madresses of Islam, or Catholic social welfare structures have been in influencing local relationships to religious communities. Permaculture is not a religion, but it is perhaps, a faith at this stage - a faith that it has something to offer. But if tough times come rapidly and it has nothing to offer those already experiencing exigency, if its message is “wait, we’ve go the right technique, it just takes a while…” I think that permaculture will be rapidly pushed aside.

Naomi Klein’s superb _The Shock Doctrine_ observes the degree to which people cling to the familiar in tough times - and they cling even harder to those they believe were there for them. If we had a decade or more before the Long Emergency was thrust upon us, or if we could assure a smooth shift, and if the language of permaculture can be shifted (and I think it can be) to one that is more encompassing, that works as well in the US as it has elsewhere, I would be less uncertain about the value of some of the work being done now. But for most of us, our time to transition is measured in months or a couple of years at most - for a host of reasons. The economic crisis is on us now, and we know that the energy crisis is coming rather quickly alongside it. We have less than 5 years left from James Hansen’s deadline to begin making “radical and draconian” changes on the climate. We have so much to do and so little time.

I admire enormously much of the work of permaculture and permaculturists, and every time someone calls me one, I’m pleased and proud to be associated with that community. There is no group out there that does not have issues that need consideration and critique - and permaculture has more that I will attend to in my next post on this matter - the issue of how we will address the larger questions of feeding cities and whole populations, and the question of what degree of actual success Transition is having at this point are, I think, important questions to ask.

I find myself wanting permaculture to succeed - there are plenty of things to like about it, particularly as an economic model. And if Transition or Permaculture can’t do enough fast enough, I’m honestly dubious that they will succeed at all. If we had world enough and time, that would be great. But the models that will help us most are the ones that can work under circumstances of enormous disruption and difficulty as well as during a smooth shift.



  1. Wow! Could not have said that better myself. Very important points raised in this essay. I hope we as a community can start to have this discussion.

  2. Thanks for reposting this, Keith. It looks to me that this is in part the "woo woo" problem that Bill pointed out years ago (much to the ire of woo-woo people).

    My educational in permaculture was entirely in Australia, and there with Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison only, so I have not experienced the "gather in a circle" approach to teaching. And having taught myself, I can't imaging where the time comes to "build trust," etc. when one has to cover and cover well earthworks, soil life, climate-specific building design, planned ecological succession, alternative economies, community building, and so on.

    I would agree with the author that we need to put a different face on permaculture in North America. It does need more diversity. To me, it is as simple as this: There is a job to do and it is a big job. As long as the goals are clear (Holistic Management can help here), I can and have worked very well with people that I otherwise would not like or am angry with for one reason or another. But on the job I am on the job, and nothing gets in the way of that. I don't need to be chums with the people I work with.

    If the job is spreading the practice of permaculture, then just commit to it. The goal of permaculture is the practice of designing sustainable human environments, not generating fuzzy, warm feelings. All that time spent holding hands is time taken away from designing and implementing systems that, in some cases, could make the difference between life and death. Best we just get down to that and leave out the rest for our own free time.

  3. Hello Friend,

    Alan Reed Bishop from Pekin Indiana/Bishop's Homegrown/Hip-Gnosis seed development and I have many things in common, including refusal to label ourselves and to "join" in the isms....

    I agree with every word of everything that you just said one hundred percent.

    Case in point, I'm working towards something that could be considered permaculture independently, am concerned with self sustainability, run a sustainable market farm, breed plants, poultry, and raise worms and furthermore find myself on the political "outs" not just with the majority of the middle class or the "alternative" culture scene that makes up most of the permaculture movement, but also a good portion of American Society as a whole.

    A right leaning Libertarian who chain smokes, speaks in revolutionary tones, and believes in "eco-logical" (Organic minus the flawed USDA standards) farming? Strange indeed!

    You also mention:

    The second question/critique I’d offer is this - is it possible to imagine permaculture responding successfully in situations not of peaceful exigency, of gentle shifts, but of violent ones? I think there is little doubt that some places will experience violent shifts - by this I mean war, civil or otherwise, rioting, vast increases in criminal activity and violence, and civic disruption. Some of those places may not be in the US ;-).

    Well my friend, the great motivator of this 25 year old "oddity" is what I feel our country is headed towards due to a non representative government.

    And I am trying to bring more around to the idea of preparing for what may be coming.....and I don't think it will come peacefully. I write about this on my blog at when the realities of farming have slowed in the winter time. I also started the little messageboard called Homegrown Goodness at filled with many like minded personalities who sometimes don't realize that they are involved in "permaculture"

    Indeed, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson (minus slavery and racism obviously!) live on in my belief system and the work that goes into this little farm ran by hillbillies and rednecks and ridge runners from the hills of Kentucky from way back, and I am pushing hard in my community for other "revolutionaries" to join the cause.

    If in any way you can find anything of use in my ramblings above or they give you hope for the future the please let me know, as I would love to meet others in Indiana involved in sustainability.

    I have always found it my mantra that if the establishment tells me I can't do it, I'll damn well prove them wrong. It's what I live for.

    All in all, the folks that can "balance" the weight of the movement are out there, you just got to find them in a more "rurual" environment for the most part. Pekin Indiana fits the bill.