Continuing the Conversation – Permaculture as a Movement 9

My response can’t do this discussion the justice it deserves, but given that my current choice is between debate on the internet and being ready for field research, I’m going to presume on your understanding for any clumsiness, typos, lack of formatting, etc.

Let’s not descend into arguments about taxonomy (i.e. the ‘real’ definition of movement) – the tedium will drive me quickly back to the statistical analysis of survey data. The tensions animating this discussion are about cultural identity and competing theories of history – they aren’t about the definition of movement.

Jason mentions a fear factor, and it’s a reasonable observation. There is a lot at stake. But let’s apply it fairly, and notice how fear informs his and Toby’s position as well. They’re trying to defend permaculture from a perceived threat – the messiness, confusion, and stigma that comes with being a movement (or just being described as a one).

This position (the version that I’m most sympathetic to) depends on the idea that talking about permaculture as a movement will alienate potential allies and participants. The corollary is that the permaculture movement – whoops! I mean the international mob of individual permaculturists – will better be able to accomplish our goals if we collectively present an innocuous and apolitical description of permaculture as a set of tools and techniques, stripped of political/cultural baggage.

In this scenario, other movements (that include permaculturists) will do the heavy lifting of political agitation and regime change, while permaculture flies under the radar. Even better, innocuous little permaculture will be steadily shifting people’s thinking into a more holistic paradigm, one that favors progressive ecological and social arrangements. Permaculture will work behind the scenes to make society more receptive to the demands of progressive popular movements. It’s a reasonably sophisticated and coherent vision.

It’s a bad theory of history, though. Advocating for this theory only makes sense if you believe that permaculture will be it’s most effective when people don’t understand it. Like Wendi, I apply the movement lens to permaculture because I believe that I can best support permaculture by deepening our understanding of it – not just spreading further. We both, I think, believe this involves examining its concrete history and its actual present state – no matter what successional stage it’s in. I can and do advocate for where I want permaculture to go, and what I want it to become – but I firmly believe that this advocacy is best rooted in present reality.

As I said in the original post, permaculture’s founders advanced explicit and distinctive strategies for spreading permaculture, and those strategies profoundly shaped the history of permaculture’s development, and continue to shape the ways in which people encounter and participate in it today. Trying to understand actually-existing permaculture while regarding these aspects as unimportant, epiphenomenal, would, at best, simply add to the rich supply of internet blather. At worst, it would encourage people to chart a course for permaculture without knowing the path we’ve been walking or our current location. It encourages people to think that they can understand a forest by examining it from the ground up.

This is my bias as a scholar – I believe that we can navigate more effectively when we have a better map. And this is my bias as a populist – I believe that people, en masse, can not only handle the messy, non-linear, truth – but thrive in it’s presence.

On another note, I’d be negligent if didn’t voice my deep gratitude for the quality of the discussion taking place here. It’s a rare treat on the internet, in permaculture circles or out of them. I’m very happy to be a part of it. Thanks to all for your participation.