Can Permaculture Fundamentally Fix Civilization?

We recently published an article entitled "How to Save the World with Permaculture," which was also featured in Invironment Magazine. One of the editors at Invironment published a response article questioning many of the points in our original article. This is a discussion of those concerns, which provides an opportunity for us to dig deeper into the topic of social change via permaculture:

Jeremy, 

I'm delighted to receive such detailed feedback about my article entitled "How to Save the World with Permaculture." Your response is holding me to a high standard and I really appreciate that. I'm also pleased to be included in your publication as a writer since I was already an avid reader of Invironment before I contacted ya'll. Because this was your first impression of me, I'm pleased to have the chance to clarify my position on some of the matters you raised. I interpreted many of your remarks to be directed at the current state of the permaculture movement in general and in that vein I agreed with many of your points. My focus is how to resolve these issues with the movement so it can be more effective moving forward. From the tone of your response I think you share that goal. You write:

1. “The world” doesn’t need fixing. It’ll be here no matter whether or not humans stick around. HUMANS are what needs “saving.” So do we really need to “fix the world?” or do we need to fix our worldview?

I totally agree. Perhaps I should have said "How to Save Civilization with Permaculture" or perhaps "How to Keep Humans from Killing and Enslaving Themselves with Permaculture." Yes, the world will still exist even if we pollute ourselves into extinction.

My general approach to ecology is what I call "selfish environmentalism," meaning that I think the best way to get the average person to buy in to large-scale change is to convince them that the change is good for them personally. So I try to frame my environmental arguments from that perspective. I see how this was vague in the original title, so point taken. I'll admit that I was trying to think of a headline more engaging than "Here's What Permaculture Is."

 

2. We need to learn to change ourselves and work within our communities before we try to convince other people that PC (or any other solutions) will solve even minor problems, much less those on a global scale. Start small and lead by example and you might get somewhere.

I totally agree. That's why I have founded an organization called Aspire which focuses on implementing these changes at all levels: inside of one individual's mind, inside of a family or small community, and then building up to larger societal change. We have also specifically published a related article about "How to Focus Your Energy for Maximum Effect," which encourages people to focus their efforts on change in their own lives, consistent with the prime directive in permaculture. 

I will say that the example I think we should be setting is an example of cooperation. It's much, much easier to criticize than to actually go do something to make actual change, which is what I feel we at Aspire are trying to do. Our articles are an attempt to connect with enough people to move to phase two of Aspire's business plan, which is developing large-scale permaculture settlements and redeveloping the existing housing stock to be more regenerative in nature.

As a sidetone, I have an MBA and I have worked with many private real estate investment funds, each of which manages millions of dollars, so when I say real estate development or redevelopment, I know what I'm talking about and I have existing professional expertise in this specific area. I felt I should mention that as a data point. For those curious about my detailed professional background, that's available on my LinkedIn profile

The bottom line on this one is that I am trying to lead by example, as you suggest. Your feedback is helpful though. Perhaps I was accidentally throwing out some inopportune signals while I was trying to lead by example. 

 

3. Permaculture has a “Permacultists” problem, illustrated quite nicely by the image on your piece. “Permaculture Convergences” are embarrassing nightmares full of wealthy landowners, aging hippies, and hipster hobbyists, who worship holism and PC as though sitting at the feet of the Buddha. Not only is this antithetical to diversity, it’s off-putting.
Pictures of people holding hands in a big circle in the sun won’t convince the mainstream of anything. Some of us aren’t interested in singing songs and “building a Permaculture community.” And approaching PC from this perspective is a HUGE turn-off for most people; it’s exclusionary.
This is the picture which originally appeared in our first article. 

This is the picture which originally appeared in our first article. 

With the picture, what I was trying to convey was a metaphorical meaning, which is that we metaphorically need to all hold hands while we cooperate towards a solution to the mess we as a society have created for ourselves. What I foolishly forgot, and you reminded me of, is that the literal meaning of the picture is equally important and perhaps seeing a picture of hippie looking people might turn off a more conservative reader. Point taken. I will probably change the picture in light of this feedback.

To be clear: the solution I'm suggesting is not singing songs. The solution I'm suggesting is to cooperatively plant a giant, global-scale food forest which would of course vary in design from location to location in the different ecosystems of earth. Our articles are the beginning in a series attempting to describe that vision so we can get people on board and start implementing it. 

 

4. Permaculture Design Certificate programs are either too easy or too difficult to acquire. Too often, they’re a way for farmers/PC “teachers” to get free labor. Meanwhile, PC programs that convey the appropriate depth of knowledge necessary to really understand everything that goes into it are tremendously expensive (and thus unavailable to the poor and disadvantaged).

This is really a two-part question. Regarding the free labor critique, my understanding is that this is primarily a problem with WOOFERs, who are basically the interns of the permaculture world. I have not encountered this issue with PDC's, although I could theoretically see how it could sometimes be a problem. For those who don't know, a PDC or Permaculture Design Course is the main way people learn about permaculture in depth. It's an intense, immersive, educational experience when done correctly. 

The second part of your question is much more interesting to me and I think it starts to get to the heart of what Aspire is doing which is different. It is our intention to produce a high quality online PDC which will be completely free to everyone within two years from today. So we personally plan to drive the cost down from over a thousand dollars to zero. This accelerates an existing trend which is already happening. The Permaethos PDC is $700 and I'm about to start the Paul Wheaton PDC, which only cost me $120 to get all the videos but not the certificate. This will be my fourth PDC; I like taking PDC's from different people because I get something new out of each of them. Compared to the traditional pricing, it is clear that the price of an average PDC is steadily declining as the market reaches maturity. Even without Aspire's help, I think the price will inevitably approach zero.

Let's zoom out from PDC's, though. I agree; this permaculture information is extremely important and we need to get it out to everyone, not just rich people in America. That's why at Aspire (https://www.aspire123.com), all of our articles are currently available in Mandarin, Spanish, and English (the three most commonly spoken languages in the world). We hope to have our articles translated into every language in the world within one year. For those readers who would like to help us make that happen, please check out our patronage program.

We are also seeking native speakers of other languages so we can launch podcasts in each language to compliment our existing English podcast, which is currently available in both video and audio formats. If you are a bilingual person interesting in getting involved, please contact us here.  

 

There are theoretical and practical problems with PC and many, many, valid criticisms. Defining it as an over-arching solution to all of our problems ignores copious evidence that it just might not be right for everyone.

You aren't giving me anything tangibly specific here. Naysaying with no details is counterproductive to finding actionable solutions. 

 

5. I love the Permaculture approach and will continue to use and promote it, but unless people who understand it as a tool make it more accessible to the poor and the marginalized, as well as to the mainstream, it will always remain on the periphery of society.

As I described in my response to your #3, we are actively doing precisely what you are suggesting here.  

At the end of your article, you list a bunch of other articles that don't really seem to have persuasive critiques of permaculture at all, in my opinion. Let's go through each of them for thoroughness:

Re: "The Trouble with Permaculture"

The basic argument here is that it’s hard to measure the agricultural efficiency of a dense food forest compared to a mono-cropped field. Do we honestly think this is a problem at all? I can grow a noticeable portion of my food in a window. We have previously documented an Urban Food Wall concept that takes 11 square feet of growing space. We then open-sourced our design, free to everyone, in our article “How to Grow Your Own Food When You Have Limited Space.” We are actively pushing ourselves to develop more and more advanced urban agricultural technologies. Also, I think it’s helpful to note that in these examples, all of these spaces had zero agricultural productivity before. With permaculture we have access to far more land because we can use small bits which are considered unusable via conventional thinking. 

Returning to the cited article, the idea that I would need to measure the specific agricultural productivity of a food forest system is asinine. What matters is that it's highly productive and abundant, not that it can easily be recorded by record keepers. I do agree that many permaculturalists have a bit of idealism, but that simply begs the question of how to make the movement more practical and actionable. Those are the very questions we are asking now. Picking a random idiot who broadcasts seeds without also equipping himself with any botany knowledge is cherry-picking an argument-ad-absurdum. 

I'm not sure why the article thinks a food forest is "Lala land." I have one in my front yard and I'm eating a pluot from it right now. (A pluot is a plum crossed with an apricot). This really seems like yet another example of it being easier to gripe and complain and be negative than it is to actually suggest an actionable solution and then to go do that. Which is fine. We understand that there are going to be naysayers while we are making the steps necessary to (in my view) fix the way our current society functions. 

Moving on to the next article cited in your footer:

Re: Permaculture Doesn't Work, Says Plant Biologist

I don't know who this "Ken Thompson, a plant biologist" is or if he really is a biologist because he doesn't even have a kindergardener level of understanding of how a food forest works. When I tracked down the source material quoted in the article, I did not see ANY educational qualifications for Ken Thompson at all. 

The supposition that "forest gardening is all about fruit" is silly. Bulbs in the ground (onions, ginger, garlic). Carrots. Microgreens. Salad greens - we grow five different ones. Climbers such as green beans and cucumbers. Runners such as strawberries and goji berries. The very statement that forest gardening is all about fruit indicates that Ken fundamentally doesn't understand what a forest garden / food forest is in the first place. 

The author of the article then says he thinks Ken hasn't been totally fair and concludes that forest gardening, combined with other permaculture approaches, would probably be effective. I'm currently writing an ebook on food forests, so it's a complex topic but for now let's just observe that the article was basically quoting a "straw man" argument and then basically saying "well the criticism has some validity but not very much." 

Moving on:

Re: A Critique of Permaculture

This one starts by quoting someone named Kourik "a much respected figure in the PC movement," which is not true because I've never heard of him and I've been studying this full-time for ten years. Setting that aside, Kourik similarly doesn't seem to have even a basic understanding of permaculture. Anyone who can say the sentence "I found the details to be lacking" has obviously not even opened and read one page of the Permaculture Designer's Manual, the foundational text for permaculture. It is the densest, most detailed book I have ever read on any subject. I'm speechless as to how Kourik can be saying it lacks details. If anything, there are far too many details for the book to be accessible to the average person. Maybe the details were not as highly disseminated in the late 1990's when the quote was originally published.

Also, if you look at Kourik's website, clearly he's onboard with these ideas but just doesn't like the word permaculture itself. For example, one of his books is called "Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape." Sounds like exactly what we're proposing to me. I may contact Kourik directly to learn more about his thinking since we do have mutual acquaintances. 

The author then goes on to state that they have spoken to David Holmgren, the cofounder of permaculture, and that they agree with his view! That doesn't sound like an indictment of permaculture to me. 

The author does state that some permaculture people are idealists and this is a turn-off for him. This echoes some of the sentiment in your response. I agree with these. But the question is how to present permaculture in the most effective, practical way, not to give up on permaculture. Your comments about the picture I originally chose were very helpful in that regard. 

The author then suggests dividing "smart permaculture," which is the well informed people, from the bs pie-in-the-sky people. Fine with me. In that case, we are "smart permaculture." This article directly supports what we are doing, does it not?

Then the author quotes Kourik again, who seems to either be highly uninformed or more probably quoted out of context, stating "not too much can be grown in a forest." See my answer above but I'm literally writing a book detailing all the specific food plants that can be grown in each of the fifteen food forest layers. Suffice to say there are enough food forest plants to easily fill a book. 

The rest of the article seems to bemoan the lack of specific example sites showing permaculture's validity at different scales. Part of our mission at Aspire is precisely to create some of these example sites. My impression is that there are already other great example permaculture sites and I'd like to get them on film for our YouTube channel

The conclusion of the article is supporting "smart permaculture" versus "cult permaculture." We agree. Let's be smart permaculture. We think we are already trying to do that (see above discussion of our business strategy). 

 

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully this discussion has helped to clarify why I think what we are doing at Aspire already responds to almost all of the criticisms listed your response article and in all the sources you cited. I think your critique of the current state of the movement is definitely valid, but it simply begs the question of what we do now to move forward effectively.

I think we have suggested a reasonable approach, which is to disseminate information in all languages freely to everyone so that the ideas can be tested and developed further. We then provide a free discussion group to share experiences and information. As we gain momentum and scale, we will directly develop or redevelop specific properties, both urban and rural, large and small, to show specific examples of permaculture in action. We will then document and disseminate those examples via our media network with we are currently building. So far, we have gained over 2,000 followers on social media in the two months since our full launch.

If you, dear reader, support what we're proposing, please consider participating in our patronage program to help make these ideas a reality. Aspire is a social movement made possible by and cocreated with you. We welcome reader thoughts regarding what we are doing and the best way to move forward from here. We can be contacted via our website or on any social media platform. 

Jeremy, I really appreciate you taking the time to give us this feedback. Your points were very reasonable and have helped us to dig deeper into these important topics.

Best Regards,

John Oden
Found and CEO, Aspire Healthy Living
Writer, Invironment Magazine