New paper out in Ecology and Society: “Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability” 1

That full title is: “Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability: diversity and modes of participation in the international permaculture movement.”

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It’s been a long journey from collecting this data way back in 2012, through what ended up being a very involved statistical analysis, and on to writing, submission, revision, and final acceptance. I’m delighted to have it out there, particularly in a great open-access journal like Ecology and Society.

You can find it at if you have an account (which may benefit my reputation score or something), or freely downloadable through the journal here.



Here are some of my favorite bits, from the Introduction and Conclusion (spoiler alert!):

[snip] The evident successes of the permaculture network are balanced by problematic assumptions and implications that evoke the hazards of insularity, exclusivity, particularity, and scale mismatch to which grassroots networks are prone. The emphasis on individual responsibility, and the proposed abandonment of existing civic and civil institutions, provide uneasy parallels with neoliberalism, the dominant political-economic ideology of our time (McCarthy and Prudham 2004, Guthman 2008). Like other versions of localism and voluntarism, these aspects of permaculture threaten to engender a depoliticized naiveté concerning the scale of responses needed to address global and regional crises (Mohan and Stokke 2000, Allen and Guthman 2006).

Especially salient for this study is the notion, entrenched in permaculture thinking, that a lack of formal hierarchies within the network ensures equitable access and democratic governance:

As permaculture is open to new information, and to every person, it results in highly individual expressions of projects everywhere. As we are largely self-funded, we cost very little, and are not controlled by outside monies. Thus we are not subject to any external controls beyond our own ethics, or our own will to act. As we are a non-hierarchical network joined only by volunteer [sic] or the user-pays principle, we have no internal status differences, and we relate as equals. As we never need to vote, we are democratic; each acts as they see beneficial. (Mollison 1997:30-31).

In dismissing the possibility of constraints on participation other than individual interest, Mollison encourages a “demography blind” perspective that ignores the forces of privilege and exclusion embedded in race, gender, and class relationships (Bonilla-Silva 2009). The conflation of a lack of formal hierarchy with the absence of hierarchy in general is not unique to permaculture, and has been the subject of critique since the years of permaculture’s founding, first in the context of the emerging second-wave feminist movement (Freeman 2013), and most recently in criticism directed specifically at permaculture’s sibling movement Transition Towns (Trapese Collective 2008). An alternate view is that socio-demographic constraints on diverse participation can only be remedied through programmatic mobilization of resources and strategic policy initiatives requiring some level of institutionalization. Formal and bureaucratic hierarchies often constitute pernicious barriers to transition, but these effects can be ameliorated through participatory democratic structures and processes (Fung and Wright 2001, Menegat 2002). Informal hierarchies of rank and privilege, on the other hand, lack such concrete points of leverage and are often invisible to their beneficiaries (Sue 2004). [/snip]

[snip] In addressing scholars of permaculture and the permaculture movement itself, we have shown that despite its distinct strengths, permaculture faces many of the same struggles around inclusion and diversity as other environmental movements with their origins in the global North. Expanded racial and economic diversity in movement participation overall, and expanded gender diversity in professional and practice roles, are critical for permaculture to contribute substantively to a transition to sustainability. Despite a lack of formal hierarchy, the network structure of permaculture demonstrably fails to create an inclusive and diverse movement. Permaculture participants and advocates should consider strategies to build institutional capacity in ways that enable systematic efforts to expand meaningful diversity while maintaining safeguards against co-optation.

Some permaculturists are taking up this challenge, as evidenced in the USA by recent discussion of gender bias in permaculture and strategies for correcting it (Olson-Ramanujan 2013), the emergence of regional women-only permaculture gatherings, and the formation of the Black Permaculture Network, a POC-led organization with a mission of soliciting and directing funding to provide scholarships to support students of color in attending permaculture courses ( Although these developments are encouraging, there is much more to be done. The permaculture movement and its advocates face a complex dilemma in negotiating between two conflicting imperatives: that of conserving the model of change that has accompanied their international spread and successes to date, and changing that model in the face of the constraints it imposes on participation. This dilemma is not, of course, unique to permaculture, but it is critical. Currently, the lack of equitable diversity across participant roles casts a long shadow over the relevance of permaculture in the global context. If participants can successfully address the dilemma of grassroots diversity, then as a set of ideas and practices, and as an international movement, permaculture will have much to offer the formidable task of transitioning to sustainability. [/snip]


I’m hopeful that this will help support critical discussion and strategy for our movement. Let me know what you think.

  • Elyssa Marie Serrilli

    Rafter, I incubating a web project with Karryn + Seed Sustainability Consultuing this winter to adress many of the above mentioned challenges, and levelrage the kind of social justice you, I and others seek. My project is a new a social-media platform and content management system based specifically on the principles of permaculture and non-violence, and designed solely to support regenerative cultural transformation on various scales (personal, homescale, neighborhood, community, business, guild/affinity group, region, etc.). I would enjoy speaking with you more about it in the New Year. Thank you for the ‘good work’ you are doing to advance these conversations in academia and in social justice circles… and in the many others I don’t yet know about.
    In service, Elyssa

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