the convenience and poverty of simple definitions 31

Now that Toby’s interesting essay (in response to my post on definitions in permaculture is making the rounds, I think it warrants a reply. (Some of this post assumes some prior knowledge of those posts, and a general awareness of agroecology).

If you haven’t read Toby’s piece, he’s making an argument that permaculture is really, fundamentally, a design discipline – and that’s how we should regard it. It’s not a movement, a set of practices, or a worldview, and we shouldn’t confuse it with those things. It’s clear how  this reduction could be attractive for people who are interested in supporting the professional sector in permaculture, and Toby makes his argument well. His definition tidies up a messy ecosystem, drawing clear boundaries that focus attention on a single aspect of interest. While such linear and reductive thinking can be useful in the right context, in this case it does not serve.

Permaculture’s spread has been fundamentally shaped by its social movement aspect. In particular, two distinctive and explicit strategies for growing the movement were articulated and demonstrated by Bill Mollison – itinerant teachers and bioregional organizationsMollison strategically, brilliantly , (and problematically), traveled the world on a shoestring for decades to grow the movement and plant the seeds of bioregional organizing – and in doing so set the stage for thousands of others to do likewise. These distinctive strategies for movement growth continue to fundamentally shape how people encounter and participate in permaculture. Permaculture, as a whole system, has nothing to gain and much to loose by disavowing this aspect of ourselves.

Parallel arguments can be made about the distinctive characteristics of permaculture as worldview and practice, but that for a later date. (I make some of these arguments more comprehensively in a paper that is now in peer review – still deciding if I will release a preprint or wait until I’ve done the inevitable revisions.)

Toby makes an illuminating comparison of the spread of permaculture with the emergence of scientific thinking during the Enlightenment. He notes that, while the emergence of (for example) chemistry may have appeared inextricable from a movement and worldview, we can now see clearly that it is actually just a humble, apolitical, purely scientific discipline. This is a dangerous romanticization of scientific history, and of how science actually functions in the real world. If chemistry appears as a pure discipline now, it is because chemistry-as-movement was successful in promulgating it. Think of climate science. Think of GMOs.

We could probably agree that agroecology, today, offers a better comparison with permaculture than chemistry from two centuries past. Wezel et al. offered a well-cited definition of agroecology as simultaneously a scientific discipline, a movement, and a practice. For those of you who don’t know, agroecology is well established as a scientific discipline in much of the world (less so in the US), despite only really coming into being in the 1970s. Agroecology as a movement is most powerful in Latin America, in particular, where shows itself in part as Campesino-a-Campesino (Farmer-to-Farmer), an international  network of peer-to-peer education that permaculturists could learn a lot from (and are).

What would it look like if Wezel et al. had instead written this: That movement? That’s not really agroecology. Only the scientific discipline is really agroecology. We only think the movement is also agroecology because we’re confused about paradigms, and one day we’ll look back on this and it will all be perfectly clear. To be clear, Wezel et al. would have much more evidence to support that assertion about agroecology than we have to support the assertion that permaculture is simply a design discipline.

In that counterfactual scenario, if the authors hadn’t been laughed out of town, they would have done a grave disservice to agroecology. The strengths and successes of agroecology are entirely dependent on the whole complex ecosystem: the rich and dynamic relationships between researchers, networks and organizations, and campesinos testing and developing practices on the ground. Agroecologists would have have been cutting themselves off at the roots.

In fact, some agroecologists (including my former advisor Ernesto Mendez) responded to Wezel et al.’s piece by asserting that drawing distinct boundaries between the different sectors of agroecology would be antithetical to its most distinctive and powerful qualities:  transdisciplinary, participatory, and action-oriented. (Remind you of anyone?)

As Mendez et al. rightly observe:

The connection between agroecological practice, equitable distribution of resources, and self-determination has been made explicit by marginalized communities demanding justice through food sovereignty.

This is no less true for the terrain that we face as permaculturists. And while permaculture isn’t agroecology, and we needn’t try and be agroecology, we are clearly fellow travelers. We should take note that it is precisely agroecology’s evolution as a complex multisectoral system that produces…

…agroecologists are aptly positioned to contribute to these struggles by participating in a creative process of knowledge production with farmers. This requires a broader understanding of knowledge and learning as a community of practice that involves both farmer scientists and university-trained scientists. Agroecology, through its parallel development as a science and social movement, is an apt site to construct relevant agroecologies that address asymmetrical power relations.

If you replace ‘farmer’ with the broader ‘land user,’ and ‘university-trained scientist’ with ‘experienced designer,’ how apt a description is this of what we are striving for in permaculture?

In short, we should go ahead and embrace the whole ecosystem of permaculture, and not settle for convenient definitions. I’m all for shorthand definitions in the right context (which is why I still say meeting human needs while increasing ecosystem health), as long as it’s being used to communicate a principle rather than obscure fundamental complexity. While the professional sector in permaculture might stand to gain in the short term by disavowing our history and our complexity, permaculture as a whole does not.  No roots, no harvest.

Edited 6.15.13 to include more links and expand discussion of agroecology.