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What Permaculture Is and Isn’t


There seems to be a growing movement to create complicated arguments about what permaculture is or isn’t.

Peter Harper, the long term force behind the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in Wales, has set himself up as a critic, without, to my mind ever actually understanding what the term truly implies. Toby Hemenway, US guru of the movement from way back when, whose recent essay on the topic found me losing the will to live half way through. Far too complex and tying himself in knots of ‘logic’. Both are extremely well versed and valuable contributors to the ecological movement with many years’ experience. So why get in a fankle over this question?

It’s very simple. The proposition for permaculture as first articulated is that it is possible to consciously design how we meet human needs, in a way which leaves the ecosystem at least as healthy as we found it and preferably more so.

We learn from observation of natural processes how to harvest energy to our own benefit whilst respecting all living things. We seek out systems and behaviours, which benefit ourselves and our fellow human beings.

That’s it.

I keep hearing how ‘some people’ are trying to ‘put the cult in permaculture’ and that ‘it’s not a religion’.

I’ve never met anyone who promoted permaculture as a cult or religion. One of the phrases I use is that permaculture is not a missionary activity. There’s plenty to do working with those who get the concept without having to persuade those who don’t. Permaculture isn’t a movement or a cause. It teaches you how to look at things and assess opportunities. This can lead to some folks ‘preaching’ and being over-zealous in promoting the ‘design-science’ as a solution to all life’s problems, without realising that it is first of all necessary to practice the discipline, and that successful practice is the only way to prove that the concept works.

We have in our midst people ‘teaching’ permaculture who don’t do that.

I think these misunderstandings are based on two things. The first is about what constitutes effective teaching methods, and the second is connected with a ‘spiritual’ dimension. One recent commentator expressed horror that ‘in England’ people were ‘required to sing’ on permaculture courses. Interesting. Here, in Scotland, I’ve always used song and music on our courses. But on our courses no-one is ‘required’ to do anything.

Why? Well effective learning is about respecting people’s attention span. And it’s about letting people empower themselves. I’ve been a professional trainer for nearly forty years. I first trained as such with Philips Electronics in the 1970s, subsequently with an American company in Chicago in the 1980’s for the IBM marketplace, and later on with the Agricultural Training Board (subsequently renamed Lantra) in the UK, in the 1990’s with whom I became a trainer of trainers. Just so we know: I have many years of professional experience and I’m not into any cult or religion on this matter.

When people sing they have to breathe. This supplies more oxygen to the brain so they think better. They get to work as a team, which is in itself a useful thing. Songs involve repetition, and what we repeat we remember better. Humour relaxes people and helps them enjoy what they are doing, and many of the songs we use involve humour. They also have a strongly emotional content, and a lack of emotional intelligence sits behind many of our more destructive technologies. I’m a big fan of Edward de Bono’s work and recommend you read about his ‘six coloured thinking hats’ if you don’t get this. And things we enjoy, we do better than things we don’t. Singing teaches the value of harmony and permaculture is all about being in harmony with the world around us. You get the picture. Song is a useful tool in creating better learning.

I understand there are some people who ‘teach’ in the world of permaculture who do little more than talk at people. The lecture is one teaching tool which has a time and a place, but if it’s your only teaching tool, you are not an effective teacher.

And so to spirituality. Right- minded human beings have a spiritual dimension. Learning from nature implies a connectedness with the living world around us. Ethical commitments are written into the concept of permaculture right from the start. This is not about religion, you can believe in any religion you want or none and still practice permaculture. But you can’t practice permaculture without a sense of ethics, which by its very nature implies a spiritual dimension. People care, Earth care.

When I teach permaculture I invite every student to be part of the teaching. On a recent course one participant invited people through a guided meditation, to sense the garden in which we were sitting. Without talking at all, we were invited to be aware of what could we hear, smell, sense. She moved us beyond words, to experience the world about us, for ten minutes. This was a very spiritual way of learning, and one I personally don’t practice often enough.

None of these things corrupt or cultify the understanding of permaculture. They add to it. And it remains a discipline for designing how we can live lightly on the Earth, an Earth we respect and understand better every day.

13 thoughts on “What Permaculture Is and Isn’t”

  1. Brilliant synthesis of so many of my own thoughts Graham! I’m glad you have so nicely articulated it here for everyone to read and share. There really is no problem in the Permaculture culture when one keeps an open mind…. ready to learn, ready to explore, ready to work and employ the skills we have under our belts.

  2. What a well-written and beautiful essay on the subject. This re-defining or re-branding of Permaculture is a constant topic in US Permaculture circles, it seems to me. In part, I think this evangelical attitude is motivated by folks wanting to share the transformative power of a design system that has so much to offer. And there’s also a sense of urgency, that 30 years on Permaculture hasn’t yet saved the world and been completely embraced by every animal on two legs. “We only have 7 years to save the planet!” I recently heard.

    It sounds as though your PDC allows students to see Permaculture through the broad range of their human experience, from music through the spiritual and intuitive… I wonder, how could a “holistic” design system could be taught in any other way? And the “ecological” crisis of our day is not caused by some abstract failure of nature, but by a human crisis of spirituality, meaning and identity. How could a “Permaculture” that fails to acknowledge this reality offer real solutions? It seems to me, that a “Permaculture” watered down to the point that it could appeal to anyone and offend no one, has forgotten to value the “margins” where those who “already get the concept” have done amazing things over the last 30 years! Anyway, well said! Perhaps some day I’ll be lucky enough to experience your site in person.

  3. Graham, I love your book “The Permaculture Garden” and your views on permaculture itself. I haven’t read “Practical Steps..” yet, but I’m going to. The thing I like the most is how you make permaculture fuss-free, easy understandable and simple practice.
    I hate thinking about permaculture as a “cult” or even “movement” and above all I hate when people try to complicate something that in essence shouldn’t be complicated at all.

  4. Hi Graham Thanks so much for this – I’m often tongue-twisted in trying to explain Permaculture to people, as it seems so obvious and simple to me, but people often ask where are the edges, what isn’t it, how is it different from xx
    … we live in a world limited by definitions.
    Your wide-open description is very helpful.

  5. Doing my ‘soil’ homework for this weekend’s PDC Glasgow 2016 course and read your article, right on the mark Graham, as ever. Thanks 🙂 XXX

  6. Interesting explanation Graham. I avoid talking abiout spirituality because it is such an ambiguous term and it puts people off.

    Singing on a course. That would be interesting. I can see where that, too, would be problematic and cannot imagine some of the people on courses I have been involved in being willing to take part.

    Thanks for your explanation of permaculture.

  7. Thank you for promoting permaculture ethics. I always longed to have people loving and promoting this Agricultural practice. It’s the hope we have is the current environmental crisis

  8. gracias maestro tan simple y claro siempre claudio prieto desde argentina…tenemos derechos de ser felices la permacultura es la sonrisa

  9. I had started to worry that permaculture was a cult because the lectures by Bill Mollison were focused on his personality and his attractiveness to women. There were seeds of design and engineering ideas that were wonderful, but they did not get as much attention from him as his anecdotes about being smarter than other people or being attractive to ladies in different countries.

    I totally agree that it’s far more important to practice the principles of permaculture – growing plants that will support an ecosystem and contribute to the growth of other plants – than to just talk about it. Since it is a time-intensive process (it takes years to grow a food forest) people familiar with the idea of permaculture get excited about it and find it easier to talk about it than to practice it.

    I appreciate your thoughts on teaching permaculture to others. An approach that holds people’s attention, allows them to engage with their senses and participate, is a great way to introduce the principles of permaculture to those who aren’t familiar with it. I would love more projects that would allow people to participate in designing and growing their own permaculture gardens.

    1. Thanks for the comments Amanda much of which I agree with. Bill exhibited all the qualities of a pioneer plant. Food forests can actually be productive from day one. They just get more productive over time. As hopefully do we.

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