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.

  • Larry Richards

    Aaah, yes–the cultural contradictions of social change! I am not as optimistic as Rafter about “the people, en masse”. However, I am also not a cynic about the prospects for large-scale change. I do wonder if the technical vocabulary of permaculture and systems theory is necessary, or if a “sufficient undertanding” can be achieved without it. And, “understanding” may need to be accompanied by “it’s the thing to do”, separate from understanding, before the change happens. It seems that large-scale change happens when a certain convergence of events triggers a need for a new alternative. I am not saying that the technical vocabulary should be kept secret–not at all. I think there is a key role for the scholar in the events that need to happen. While we can’t make the needed events happen, and may not even know what they are, we can do whatever we do in a way that precludes the desirability of certain alternatives and points toward the desirable.

  • David Travis

    The thing that strikes me about this conversation (which is excellent, by the way, the best I’ve seen in a while) is that there is not much mention of the “political economy” of permaculture — the concrete mechanisms of how it propagates itself as an idea: the certification process and its structure, the books, the various membership organizations, the magazines, the professional teachers, and so on, all the way down to the local guilds and weekend workshops. And on the other side, you have the mechanics of why people participate in the forms they do — from the struggling farm that might be using on-site PDCs to subsidize new projects, to the full-time permaculture guru who depends on speaking engagements and PDCs as their business, to the landscape contractor who’s been able to carve out a niche using some new ideas that happen to resonate with their market. And that’s not even touching on the social self-selection we might (or might not) see within the PDCs — who takes these courses and, more importantly, who doesn’t. But in answering what permaculture is or is not, I would look at this structure long before worrying about the intentions of Bill Mollison or the words of those who’ve commented on him.

    And so if permaculture is a movement, its internal metabolism doesn’t really seem to reflect it very well. With the possible exception of Scientology, social movements typically don’t put paid classes and consulting certificates front-and-center in how they grow. Professional organizations do, and for better or worse, that’s the structure Mollison seems to have created (“If we sell enough information we can change the world”). I would argue that unless you’re selling that information to the world’s future farmers (or post-farmers), you’re not going to be changing much — but I digress.

    Anyway, I think I agree with Toby in terms of what permaculture is. Redefining it according to what we want it to be might be useful, but when that definition is in pretty stark contrast to how it operates and reproduces itself, I think it can be misleading. In which case maybe letting permaculture be permaculture in a minimalist sense is perhaps best (or, if not “best”, “more true”), while leaving the other stuff for those (wonderful) moments of intersectionality with other movements.

  • Joe Cumner

    As Shakespeare most eloquently titled:

    “Much Ado About Nothing”

    A lot of froth and friction, over little of consequence

    Or as put more bluntly elsewhere:

    The petty tempests in the teapot in academia are of vivid matter only to the participants because:

    well, because, the stakes ARE so petty.

    • RafterSass

      This attitude is certainly a classic in the permaculture world, part and parcel of permaculture’s stark isolation from scientific research, and the more general lack of interest from people doing substantive work in international development and aid. Of course, if you think that the Permaculture Designer’s Manual is the revealed gospel, and all we need to is keep on mulching our Siberian Pea Shrubs, then those factors are indeed petty.

      • Joe Cumner

        The Permaculture Design Manual as the Guide to Life Itself.
        Yes, the revealed gospel of our existence.

        I wonder how many people actually incorporate that into their philosophy of life.
        Certainly a significant number that contribute to the many fora that promulgate that train of thought.

    • Toby Hemenway

      And I would reply to Joe with Heinrich Heine (noting the 19th century sexism): “Oh, you proud men of action! You are merely the unconscious hod-carriers of the men of ideas.”

      Like Rafter, I’ve had other projects, but will get back to this in a day or two.

  • Nenad Maljković

    Would it be possible to agree that permaculture is BOTH design approach AND movement? I think it has been “designed” that way 🙂 We teach permaculture ethics and design principles on PDCs, and then people apply their knowledge and skills in their life and work, eventually producing social change. PCD was designed to create social movement.

    And to add another layer to this discussion: we can also apply permaculture ethics and principles to understand social / behavioral patterns, and to design social structures that will support and eventually create human culture that is different from current globally dominant culture (where culture is an “integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance”). And guess what name I like to use for that emerging culture? Permaculture!

    • RafterSass

      Hi Nenad. My argument is actually that permaculture consists of a design system, a set of practices, a movement, and a worldview (see the previous post: http://liberationecology.org/2013/06/13/the-convenience-and-poverty-of-simple-definitions/). I’m responding to Toby and Jason (among others) who argue that permaculture is *only* a design system, and not any of those other things.

      • Nenad Maljković

        Yes, I’ve been reading all that, thank you – and I prefer to integrate rather than segregate both positions 🙂

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