Permaculture Future?: Part I

Sharon June 29th, 2009

Recently, Dmitry Orlov offered a selection of possible topics for a talk he was giving, and several of them dealt with the ubiquity of permaculture as the articulated solution to our present crisis.  Orlov’s point was that a consensus seems to be emerging that permaculture strategies - particularly the Transition movement - have emerged as the de facto solution to our collective crisis without a lot of public conversation or questioning.  I didn’t get to hear Dmitry’s commentary on this subject (although I can guess what some of it would be), but it pushed me to begin a subject I’ve been gently avoiding for a while. 

Now I am commonly described as a permaculturist, and I’ve no objection, in fact it rather pleases me - I generally don’t worry much about how people describe me, and this is one of the nicer ways.   Officially, I’m not sure I qualify - I’ve never taken a full design course myself, and am mostly self-taught.  I’ve taught in a few design classes, but have never sought certification for one reason - I don’t think of myself primarily as a designer, at least in a classical sense.  That may seem strange, since a lot of what I do is design work - I teach garden design, Adapting in Place (ie, designing your life to work with less money and energy), etc…  But permaculture design is formal design of a particular kind - deeply visual, deeply concerned with maps and images.  I’m not a terribly visual person - my own strengths have to do with the translation of the world into words, not images.   There are too many pictures in permaculture design  for me ;-) .

Moreover, I tend not to sign up quickly for membership in “ists” or “isms” - even ones that I approve of deeply.  The only club I officially belong to is the order of agrarians, and only because I want to meet Wendell Berry someday ;-) .  

Despite my lack of official signing up (I have the same issues with joining the Kantians ;-) ) I do approve of permaculture in a broad sense.  I like many of the things it has brought to our society as a whole, and I like many permaculturists.  I can think of far worse principles from which to build a new society.  Moreover, I give enormous credit to Rob Hopkins and Transition practitioners, who have essentially created the only viable, large scale alternate model for dealing with a coming crisis - that’s quite an accomplishment.  One of the reasons I have not written this post before is that I really don’t want to criticize or undermine permaculture and transition, which have been fairly successful - Transition astonishing successful in a short time - in energizing a lot of people with a new idea and vision.  Given our shortage of good solutions for responding, and the need for coherent solutions, I don’t want to seem as though I’m sniping at something I admire and value. 

That said, however, I admit to some doubts about the political viability of permaculture as a solution for our collective crisis, doubts I’m going to articulate here, in the interest of promoting a larger discussion about permaculture, and about the possibility of movements in general as a strategy of mitigation.  I do want to be clear that I am not trying to undermine the enormous efforts made by people involved in permaculture and Transition, nor do I want to see them discontinue their efforts.  But I do feel that there are questions to be discussed and answered.

I should be absolutely clear here - all of my concerns about permaculture are about elements of permaculture’s presentation and emphasis - not about the overall goals of Transition or the permaculture movement. That is, even if I don’t qualify as an official permaculturist, even if I critique them, there is no question I want to work with permaculturists - their emphasis on scale, on  integrating food production and local economies, their emphasis on appropriate technology - all of these things are, I think, absolutely right.  The question is not whether permaculture is bad - I would deny that outright.  The question for me is whether permaculture and its offshoots, as they are presented and emphasized now,  can do what they would like to do - make a smooth (or smoother) transition than any other method through tough times.

The first one is a philosophical one - can permaculture as a movement actually attract enough mainstream people to really and truly make a difference? This to me is a sincere and serious question, and perhaps the deepest issue to be addressed.  When I have given talks at permaculture classes, attended group meetings, or given talks to permaculturist audiences, I’ve noticed a pervasive consistency among the attendees.  While there are exceptions, and I can’t speak for permaculturist gatherings outside the US, the ones I’ve attended (and I’ve attended quite a few in different areas of the country) have had some common denominators.  The attendees tend to be white and middle class, or if they are not middle class, they are very young, and immersed in alternative culture.  I don’t mean to stereotype, but most of the people who attend these groups tend to visually signal their attachment to historical leftist or alternative communities.  There are plenty of exceptions, but the predominance is of grey pony tails, yoga mats, priuses, flowered skirts and lefty bumperstickers.  These are not bad things - I grew up in precisely this culture and am quite fond of it.  But the absence of trucks with gun racks, right wing bumper stickers,  non-white people and other signifiers of ideological is somewhat disheartening, if you are looking for a universal movement.  At the Albany permaculture gathering, I was discussing with one of the other participants how pleased I was that the demographic involved more younger people, only to be mocked by the speaker, Larry Santoyo, for praising the diversity of the nearly all-white group.  And he was right - my standards have just been lowered over time ;-) .

I realize that permaculture has a somewhat wider audience in the UK and Australia, and that these may be primarily American objections.  The US, for example, has never gotten permaculture into any soap opera ;-) .  I also recognize that both are comparatively new here in the US, and that the early adopters don’t necessarily describe who will come to the fold in the long term.  Both are meant to be deeply flexible and adaptive to local conditions, and it is possible that they will become so.  There is a case to be made that some elements of leftist culture - universal therapy, yoga and tofu, for example, have permeated into the mainstream of American culture quite gracefully.  There is a case to be made, however, on the other side, that other elements have not.

My claim is not that permaculture as an idea is ideologically leftist, or particularly hippyish, but that its practice has been, at least in the US.  And this, I think is, quite frankly, a bad thing if the goal is the creation of a mass movement.  Frankly, having grown up the child of baby boomers, my own tastes don’t run that way.  I find myself in sympathy with people who aren’t attracted to the Transition Training’s emphasis on visualizing, community building activities, etc…  My own entry into visualization exercises and trust-building dates back to summer camps as a child, and the whole thing makes me a bit queasy.  When the words “get in a circle” are uttered, I tend to start wandering off.   I recognize this may be my own personal design flaw, but I have no interest in ever building a Web of Resilience, and I think it extremely unlikely that many of my neighbors would be interested as well, or would take time off work and home life for it.  I’m sure some of them would, but the emphasis of many permaculturists on the language of popular therapy and summer-camp style activities designed to create consensus, build trust and visualize the sustainable future are, well a turn off for whole classes of people.  They will speak to other groups - but the question of who you are speaking to is, of course, the essential one. 

Even the language of “acknowledging one’s sense of loss and grief” is one that is tough for a lot of people to swallow, despite the pervasiveness of Oprah and Dr. Phil.  I think there is a real question about how much public discussion of one’s feelings is going to be attractive in different populations and communities.  A friend of mine recently attended Transition Training in his town, and said to me “there was good stuff, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to join a cult.”  This is not the impression one wants to cultivate ;-) .  I make no claim that his experience was universal, but I’ve heard more than few people express similar sentiments from different parts of the US and different countries.

There are countries in the world and a few regions of the US in which a movement that uses tools that primarily appeal to the crunchy left will be successful.  Speaking as an American, for America as a whole, however, I do not think the entire US is one of them, nor are most regions.  I think it is important to recognize that while permaculture itself is not a leftist movement philosophically, an extended diet of bearded and ponytailed permaculture teachers and enthusiasts ;-) making comments about the Republicans will tend to associate the movement with the politics of its public faces. 

The painful reality of American politics for us leftists is that at no time as the American public cast open its arms and said “we were just waiting for you to invite us to join with you” ;-) .  Associate permaculture to closely with the American left, and the reality is that many people won’t join.

Is there a solution that problem?  I suspect so, perhaps some attention to the design of permaculture’s PR image.  Many (not all) of the people who embraced permaculture were mostly on the left, at least to a degree (thank G-d for Bill Mollison and Larry Santoyo, who offer a cheerful confirmation that permaculture really isn’t politically associated with one side or another, and provide hard drinking, reality pushing, capitalist (in Larry’s case, anyway), versions of the things itself ;-) - I may not be a capitalist and I’ve long since lost any tolerance for hard drinking, but I find them refreshing and funny, which is helpful), and they certainly know things we need to know. And most of the permaculturists I know are more complex than that - Larry Santoyo was a California Cop, Toby Hemenway a scientist…. that is, they aren’t what they are widely perceived to be.  But perceptions matter more than reality in some cases, and polling people who are not part of the club, the widespread perception I find is that permaculture is another hippie thing, to go with the “liberal left behind movement” reputation of peak oil. Whether it is fair or not, it matters.  At a minimum, I’d be careful about the language associations and techniques one adapts - I don’t think that evoking meditation or trust building is a really good idea, say, for Transition Mississippi, or even Transition rural upstate NY if the goal is critical mass.

My main suggestion would be that at least in the US, Transition movements begin engaging religious communities on a serious level.  I give a lot of talks at churches and synagogues and other religious communities.  Many of those communities are already engaging in the nuts and bolts work of responding to an *existing* Long Emergency - they are doing the marrying and burying, the preaching of moralities, both productive and not.  They run the food pantries, the battered women’s shelters, the emergency funds.  They find clothing for the naked, food for the hungry and offer sanctuary and public appeals when violence breaks out.  This is the nitty gritty work of responding to the crisis as it unfolds, and it must be done simultaneously with the building of the “better model.”  I would argue that some of (not all) the best people to make the case for Transition to are the people who are already on teh ground in our cities and towns doing the work that desperately needs more hands. 

My other suggestion is that permaculture groups seek out people who are *already* doing the work of sustainability, but don’t get any credit for it, because they are poor.  Some do this, but the fact that these groups tend to be mostly made up of middle class white folks suggest to me that that asking the people who are already living in the city with no electricity, because the bill gets cut off every April, and the people who are already dumpster diving and making their livings of the waste of the city, and the people who are already stretching every resource because they have no choice, or urban farming because that’s just what you do where they come from ought to be invested in the local permaculture community.  And it will not do to go among them as missionaries and teach them - let them teach you.  You may have done the food stamp budget challenge one month - they’ve been doing it for years, and can tell you how to keep eating when the money runs out.  I do not want to see something so valuable become the territory only of an affluent middle class who can afford to pay a few thousand bucks and take two weeks off work to take a design seminar.

The second question/critique I’d offer is this - is it possible to imagine permaculture responding successfully in situations not of peaceful exigency, of gentle shifts, but of violent ones?  I think there is little doubt that some places will experience violent shifts - by this I mean war, civil or otherwise, rioting, vast increases in criminal activity and violence, and civic disruption.  Some of those places may not be in the US ;-) .  Recently Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg made public their correspondence about whether Transition should incorporate emergency preparedness into its training and work - it was an excellent conversation, and long overdue, but it inadvertantly exposed some real limitations to Transition’s planning - Hopkins’s conclusion was that perhaps it could begin to do so, and his first thought was that it could include camping and wilderness survival skills.  As useful as these might be to many people, and as good a thought as that is, it struck me as a measure of how far off from dealing with a truly disastrous situation we are - it is true some people may retreat into woods as refugees, but far more likely to be needed are plans for quelling local violence, building emergency shelters and providing emergency medical services, and urban survival.  Hopkins noted that he saw little way to address preparedness measures because they were traditional “top down” applications - ie, provided by the state.  But if Transition’s bottom-up structures are overridden the moment there is a major crisis by existing top-down structures, then we can assume that we will no longer be living in a society governed by permaculture.  I realize that the long term goal is for permaculture models to replace existing structures, smoothly and gradually. 

The problem is lack of time - historically institutions that have done very well in tough times have been those that had something to offer people in exigency - that took up the work of dealing with the crisis.  If a crisis comes before the town council or the local government is replaced by loving permaculturists, permaculturist movements must offer a compelling case that they can handle a rough transition better than existing infrastructure - that means heavy emphasis on preparedness.  Religious institutions have known this - think how powerful the relief institutions and madresses of Islam, or Catholic social welfare structures have been in influencing local relationships to religious communities.  Permaculture is not a religion, but it is perhaps, a faith at this stage - a faith that it has something to offer.  But if tough times come rapidly and it has nothing to offer those already experiencing exigency, if its message is “wait, we’ve go the right technique, it just takes a while…” I think that permaculture will be rapidly pushed aside. 

Naomi Klein’s superb _The Shock Doctrine_ observes the degree to which people cling to the familiar in tough times - and they cling even harder to those they believe were there for them.  If we had a decade or more before the Long Emergency was thrust upon us, or if we could assure a smooth shift, and if the language of permaculture can be shifted (and I think it can be) to one that is more encompassing, that works as well in the US as it has elsewhere, I would be less uncertain about the value of some of the work being done now.  But for most of us, our time to transition is measured in months or a couple of years at most - for a host of reasons.  The economic crisis is on us now, and we know that the energy crisis is coming rather quickly alongside it.  We have less than 5 years left from James Hansen’s deadline to begin making “radical and draconian” changes on the climate.  We have so much to do and so little time.

I admire enormously much of the work of permaculture and permaculturists, and every time someone calls me one, I’m pleased and proud to be associated with that community.  There is no group out there that does not have issues that need consideration and critique - and permaculture has more that I will attend to in my next post on this matter - the issue of how we will address the larger questions of feeding cities and whole populations, and the question of what degree of actual success Transition is having at this point are, I think, important questions to ask.

I find myself wanting permaculture to succeed - there are plenty of things to like about it, particularly as an economic model. And if Transition or Permaculture can’t do enough fast enough, I’m honestly dubious that they will succeed at all.  If we had world enough and time, that would be great.  But the models that will help us most are the ones that can work under circumstances of enormous disruption and difficulty as well as during a smooth shift.


74 Responses to “Permaculture Future?: Part I”

  1. TomAllen says:

    This past weekend I was a guest instructor at a PDC course. I taught urban gardening, solar electric systems and a segment on community radio. They’re all practical skills although the radio and solar electric subjects will require much more study from the students. They certainly seem motivated enough, though.

    The demographic was predictably all white, educated, with a good many graduate degrees. Students ranged in age from 20s through 50s, fairly evenly spread. Design projects were real life projects that require presentations with city agencies and the board of a local medical facility. Politically it was all over the map. There was a Honda Insight with a Ron Paul bumper sticker, a couple of older compact pickups and several Suburus that are ubiquitous around Seattle. The men were short haired with a couple of exceptions and willowy young women with calloused bare feet made me wish I was single again. At 61 I was the oldest person in the room. Lunch was raw vegan. No circles. No Yoga. All in all, I’d say this was a pretty mainstream crowd, at least mainstream for Seattle.

    The common thread that struck me in all three classes was the nearly complete lack of practical skills. Folks seemed to be starting from scratch in every subject. Any sort of self sufficiency will be a long time coming.

    I’m a one-time back-to-the-land hippie, a Viet Nam veteran and most recently a radio journalist. Along the way I bucked bales, farmed “played them ol’ guitars an’ drove them ol’ trucks;” worked in the woods and learned to fix the equipment where it broke; drove long-haul truck into Northern Canada in the winter and Arizona in the summer. Eventually I got some education and an office job in Seattle’s software industry; every job I’ve had offered something I could plug into Holmgren’s design principles of permaculture, except one — Software.

    For most educated, middle-class people the end of a PDC is the beginning of an education in practical skills. If we present it that way it will have broader appeal. Many working-class folks only need to see how what they already know can be applied to a design system maybe with a few refinements. That’s how it was with me. So, as with so many things, permaculture marketing is all about knowing your audience. It really has little to do with culture wars unless we present it that way — much to our detriment.

    Tom Allen
    Seattle Washington

  2. Toni says:

    Sharon, and everyone, what a really good discussion you are all having. I have enjoyed reading all of your posts. You have brought up some really important issues for me to think about.

    I’m no expert but I too have concerns about the white middle classness generally of the groups I attend in my attempt to learn about how I might cope with what is obviously coming and coming fast.

    I delude myself sometimes into thinking that I am white middle class because sometimes I don’t have to worry about paying the rent, but actually I am white, middle aged working class and the friends I have are black and white working class and some of us are worse off than others.

    Generally, as a group, we have always struggled to get by. We smoke (yes, still) drink and gamble, like loud music and generally don’t eat vegetables (my Dad). We have not really got into the buying a second anything - still don’t have the money for the first really.

    I learned about peak oil and climate change only last year. You all are obviously well ahead of me! My reaction was to tell all my friends and family about what I was learning about and to encourage them to come along. However, truthfully, they just flat out don’t want to join any groups that will mean they miss their TV show or the football but get them talking about how to get by on nothing….. this is an area of expertise they can discuss for days.

    I think that maybe, in the end, the best thing we can all do is talk to our neighbours. Especially the redneck or whatever neighbours. When things get rough, I reckon having done a PDC course is not really going to cut the mustard. Stopping somebody pinching the food I grow will require more than just me keeping an eye out. And, in a community where I will be able to go as far as I can walk, bike or bus, who is going to be able to enjoy my organic food with me? Some of my friends live half an hour away by car - when will I manage to see them? Im going to have to rethink alot of things……… Transition and permaculture principles are obviously just a beginning.

    If (when?) our lives go a bit pear-shaped, I don’t know if we will really care whether you can sing or do yoga, (unless we’re having a party) possibly whether you have got my back will be the main thing. And growing those kinds of relationships takes time……

  3. Asher Miller says:

    Hi Sharon,

    First, thanks for the post. Second, I didn’t get a chance to read through all the comments, so I apologize in advance if I’m repeating here.

    I just wanted to pipe in as someone who wants to further Transition efforts here in the US. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Transition US and Post Carbon Institute is providing support to TUS.)

    I think there’s consensus on the part of TUS that part of our work is to reach out to communities and perspectives not fully represented in organizing efforts here in the States. Part of that is reaching out to communities of color, urban communities, and faith-based communities.

    It’s key to remember that we can’t force Transition efforts to come alive in certain communities, but we can reach out and ask questions. So we’ve begun these efforts and can always use help. Without naming names, I can say that we’ve sent the Transition Handbook to some of the key people and organizations working on environmental awareness (mostly climate change) amongst faith-based communities, as well as those who work on economic and environmental justice issues.

    This is still very early in this process.

    Personally, I don’t know how Transition / permaculture play in these communities. But there’s only one way to find out.



  4. Sharon says:




  5. Sharon says:

    oh, one more thing - i’ll do a pdc at my house if a. there’s no circle time and b. y’all have some plan for the permaculture of childcare ;-j. i’ve got four bedrooms, plenty of camping space, i’ll provide some meals, and i’m a hell of a cook - although it won’t be all raw food vegan. y’all can whip my place into shape in trade ;-j.


  6. Markus says:


    If you did a PDC…how soon could it happen and what area do you live in?
    You say the cost would be in trade for doing work around your place?


  7. Colin says:

    Hi all, great discussion!

    One way of approaching the “movement” issue is to look at it the other way around - not “how to make permaculture/Transition a viable movement?” but rather “what is permaculture/Transition’s place in a broader viable movement?”

    Permaculture and Transition Towns may not have much to say at the moment about dealing with conflict or violent upheaval, but there are other things that do (CERT being one previously mentioned example).

    Permaculture’s great strength, it seems to me, is as a framework/perspective: work with nature/we are nature; Observe, then Interact then Apply. It is a method of learning from what is already in place and applying that learning to what we do (whatever it is that we do). There is a concrete practicality in this (to address the PR issue) that I would think would have a much broader appeal than any politically-defined presentation of permaculture. To offer a short definition: Permaculture is the study and application of what works - and as a school of thought, perhaps it has the potential to be the Philosophy of What Works as applied to human endeavors. I know I’m getting a bit heady, but to wrap up this point, permaculture has a valuable perspective to offer when approaching the question: How are we going to move forward in this changing world? That perspective could be called practically applied observation. (Ideally it would be called something more succinct, but “permaculture” seems to have stirred up enough image issues, so I’m at a bit of a loss here…)

    On a more concrete level, there is a huge opportunity to integrate permaculture into already existing structures, as was suggested above in the discussion of religious and community institutions. On another listserv the Cooperative County Extension program was mentioned. Might I suggest the public school system? Or after-school programs? Or a scout program?

    If permaculture (or any other approach to sustainability for that matter) is to spread beyond the early adapters, then education is a critical component. This is not to ignore the fact that there is a wealth of knowledge in typically “uneducated” sectors, whether that’s how to make food stamps stretch for the urban poor, or how to sustainably manage the “wild” in the few areas where indigenous people still have the right and access to their native land. These types of knowledge are invaluable (not least for those who must utilize them every day), but since we live in a culture that highly values academic education, we would all do well to see that the “educated” actually know what they’re talking about. There is a sore lack of training in areas such as eco-literacy and personal finance, not to mention hands-on skills. These teachings do not have to encompass permaculture (they’re valuable and helpful to a more resilient future in their own right), but permaculture can definitely offer an integrated perspective and a synthesis when discussing these issues.

    It seems that permaculture is in a bit of an identity-crisis at the moment. Can it be broadly-encompassing and widely adaptable, while maintaining a core that has something more to offer than generalities? I think it can: it can offer a set of techniques for learning what is viable (naturally, historically, and locally), and applying that learning in human systems (agricultural, political, economic, etc.) It probably won’t save the world (no single thing ever has) but it can suggest an approach and offer some insights that will undoubtedly be part of a greater transition. If it taps into existing institutions it can help to guide them in a more sustainable/regenerative direction, but it can also continue as a rather informal network of people concerned with organic agriculture, post-peak-oil survival, and community resilience. Whatever success comes from that informal network will lend it legitimacy. And if permaculture is treated as an approach to the land rather than an ideology, it won’t matter whether your a hippy eco-feminist or a conservative Christian Farmer. What will matter is that it works. That’s a common ground we can all focus on.

  8. DavidM says:

    I’m currently deeply involved in a Transition Initiative, and I’m taking a Permaculture Design course. I think permaculture and Transition are among the most powerful tools available for bringing about the change we need to see in the world.

    That said, I think the concerns/criticisms in the above post are valid and quite helpful. I think Sharon is merely pointing out that we need to think carefully and strategically about how these concepts can be packaged and framed in ways that mainstream culture might be able to hear and respond positively to.

    I think we should listen to Sharon’s input here - after all, her book ‘Depletion and Abundance’ was the first peak oil book I felt comfortable sharing with my conservative family. The book is quite progressive in many ways, yet it resonates with traditional values.

    I think if permaculture principles were presented in frameworks informed by Integral (Ken Wilber) and Spiral Dynamic (Clare Graves/Don Beck) concepts, it could potentially reach a much broader audience.

    Check out Alan Seid’s “Peak Moment TV” interview:

    And follow that with this short Ken Wilber video on “Integral Sustainability” (“Here Integral philosopher Ken Wilber discusses some of the obstacles the world faces in bringing any sort of real change to our current ecological crisis. The paradox is that it takes a fairly sophisticated perspective to perceive the problem—and the more inclusive perspectives become, the fewer people there are inhabiting them. Some green approaches to sustainability might insist that all we need to do is to simply respect the “Great Web of Life,” but how can we when the vast majority of people can’t even perceive it? As our environmental problems are indeed global in scale, requiring a global response, which in turn requires truly global perspectives, how can we begin leading more people toward becoming part of the solution? In this dialogue, Ken gives us some suggestions.”)

  9. DavidM says:

    Oh, I also wanted to say that I really appreciated Bart Anderson’s essay on Permacultue as well. I recommend it:

  10. steph says:

    ^ yup above link was helpful for me too.

    I’m hoping you’ll see this sharon, I wanted to point out that, in my opinion at least, the core ideas were borrowed from Arne Naess. If you get on google books and read the “Series Editor’s Introduction” to “the selected works of arne naess” (after a couple dozen pages it gets fragmented b/c its a preview, but it appears 10 times on the google books preview so you can read it all), Naess much more eloquently describes nature through his ‘gestalt ontology’, which is all to similar to PC’s core views and pattern design method. Naess was writing about this almost a decade before the first Permaculture book/manual was written, and I dont recall seeing it sourced.

    I’ll admit im overly critical of everything, hah, and I’d say I’m a nihilist and agrarian. I’m working on a 40 acre organic fruit farm in the midwest right now actually. I’m personally very much against branding, so while I might do stuff that PC people do, I’d never identify as it. The same way that the japanese farmers above and John Robb would never identify as it, but already understand the thinking processes behind PC on their own.

    Anyway, best of luck to you all.

  11. PostCarbon Rhode Island » Blog Archive » Sharon Astyk on Permaculture Future says:

    [...] Part one of a nice piece by Sharon Astyk. There is a response to this at Transition Culture. [...]

  12. Ruth Wallsgrove says:

    There are some fantastic people in the permaculture network worldwide. There are some fantastic people in lots of other networks too. I came to Transition through peak oil, and what appealled to me was firstly that it is attempting a constructive approach to energy descent - which otherwise just scares me stupid - and that planning for energy descent needs to be inclusive.

    Perhaps it’s because I live in a large city, but the skills that seem most urgent to me are how we organise together for a long, difficult period of change, and how we build or rebuild communities - sophisticated social skills and ways of looking at society, such as Spiral Dynamics and recent models of participatory democracy.

    Perhaps because I am not American, how to protect my homestead doesn’t figure highly… but how we build resilient communities that are tolerant and generous towards others who lose their communities through war, sea level rises, food shortages, that is going to be a challenge for everyone. Emergency planning is obviously part of this.

    Here in New South Wales, we’ve assumed from the start that Transition includes religious, business, city centre, immigrant, political party and all sorts of other people (I tick about 4 of those boxes). This is not to say that handling diversity is easy; but I think it cannot just be built on the existing Permie network, large though that is in Sydney.

    And on a plea for tolerance - let’s not go ‘who’s got the most valuable experiences’, but appreciate we need a huge range of them. For five minutes at Transition Training I felt inadequate because I don’t know how to look after cows and grow my own wheat, but then realised I was just being silly. It certainly isn’t what the Transition Totnes trainers were advocating!

    warm wishes, Ruth

  13. Brad’s Take » Blog Archive » A bushel and a peck says:

    [...] I was reading Sharon’s concerns on Casaubon’s Book about Permaculture and Transition (Part 1 and Part 2). And followed to Rob’s response at Transition [...]

  14. andrew leslie phillips says:

    I commend this discussion - timely and interesting!

    I came to Permaculture in 2004 and though I had been a journalist (with a leftist tinge - I produced radio with Pacific for 15 years), I was shocked and inspired to find what many call a “tool box” of intelligence impicit in permaculture. Geoff Lawton was my first teacher and I arranged for him to teach in the north-east at what became Green Phoenix Permaculture in 2005. I think that course reinvigorated Pc in the north-east and its been going gang-busters ever since over here.

    But I must say that after teaching five courses here in Hancock I am somewhat pessimistic about the ability of Pc to hit critical mass. But perhaps I expect too much. I have always told my students to forget about the masses - the machine, and look after yourself. As Mollison says - our first responsibility is to ourselves and our familes (and by extension, our communities) and that implies growing food locally. That’s where we start.

    But the principles of permaculture - particularly Holmgren’s approach - implies a much larger canvas than just food. The more I think about the principles, the more I realize they are applicable as systems thinking - ways to approach much more than just food.


    Perhaps not a conventional twelve step program but 12 steps that seem applicable in building a successful system.

    And just in case we forget - Rob Hopkin’s Transition Town concept grows out of the final chapter of Mollisons “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” where he explores invisible structures and creation of what he calls an “alternative nation”. And Hopkins comes out of permaculture and designed a two year permaculture course.

    In the same way, the nascent financial permaculture movement ( led by Katherine Austin Fitts with able encouragement and assistance from the venerable Albert Bates, is also an extension of the final chapter in Mollison’s manual.

    And by the way, if there is any group in this country that has done more to create and explore community and genuine alternative living than Albert Bates and the Farm hippy community, please let me know. Some hippy’s rock!

    I attended the first financial Pc event last year in Tennessee with about 100 or more others and noticed extensive use of the aforesaid principles in financial permaculture design. Yes there was lots of weird new-age jargon and all that touchy-touchy-feely-feely shit but I managed to get through it and actually enjoyed and learned a lot.

    From the get go, Mollison wanted none of what he called “woo-woo stuff” - he wanted permaculture seen as a design science acceptable at universities even as he famously derided them saying we could lose all the universities and we wouldn’t have lost much - but if we lost the trees, we’ve lost everything.

    I am Australian and have been accused of having that “Australian swagger” - whatever the hell that is! And its true Mollison and some permies are a bit rough at times - so what! Get over it! Permaculture may not be the panacea but it is way ahead of the curve as a design science and if applied there is no doubt could make the difference between crash and burn or a softer, greener energy descent.

  15. Greenerminds Blog » Blog Archive » Planting while Rome Burns says:

    [...] the debate raged around the web this weekend over Sharon Astyk’s posts (I & II) on Permaculture and Transition, Rob Hopkins’s response, and a wild flurry of [...]

  16. Ian in Dundas ON says:

    Sharon, you may have pricked the conscience of Pc adherents, but you are far from from providing an alternative. You want this rapidly evolving, syncretistic philosophy/movement/design system to be tough, tight, and cross-cultural. You want the model to work in times of civil disobedience or more hopefully, to avoid/mitigate such disruptions, which are surely coming.

    So where else would you turn? The fascist/centrist model of a military junta? Or perhaps a theocratic model like some countries have or even the Mormons, Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites?

    Your main suggestion was “at least in the US, that Transition movements begin engaging religious communities on a serious level”. I agree the nuts and bolts work of responding to an *existing* Long Emergency is what many of these churches know: the Sally Ann comes to mind.

    Your other suggestion is that permaculture groups seek out people who are *already* doing the work of sustainability, but don’t get any credit for it, because they are poor. You say do not go among them as missionaries and teach them - let them teach you. I very seriously concur, we (so to say the ones with choices about livestyle), have so little rapport with the underclasses.

    These two suggestions serve to underline the massive task of maintaining social cohesion in the face of hardship, shortage, conflicting priorities, and vested interests.

    Your second question/critique - “is it possible to imagine permaculture responding successfully in situations not of peaceful exigency, of gentle shifts, but of violent ones?” We lack time - the town council or the local government backed by police or national guard, is far more able to compel compliance than can loving permaculturists… I can’t think of a case of grassroots, decentralized groups, with distributed leadership making the grade. I err: I would say the French Underground, or the Italian, Danish, etc resistance movements to the Nazis might be a plausible case. Or maybe the Christians against the Romans or other persecuted peoples.

    Like you say, our time to transition is measured in months or a couple of years at most, and economic crisis is on us now, and we know that the energy crisis is coming rather quickly alongside it. (less than 5 years left from Hansen’s deadline to begin making “radical and draconian” changes on the climate). We have so much to do and so little time.

    Like you, I want permaculture to succeed - there are plenty of things to like about it, particularly as an economic model. I personally doubt we have enough time broadly speaking, tho some small pockets might make it. If you are right that models that will help us most are the ones that can work under circumstances of enormous disruption and difficulty then we have to embrace the use of force, preferably state sanctioned.

    You write copiously and usually powerfully, but I would like to offer one suggestion: cut down on the wordcount! Get the point out early, edit heavily. You have too much to say to have it lost in verbosity. A picture saves a lot of words sometimes! Hence visual thinking, wholistic thinking, permaculture thinking.

    Ian in Dundas ON
    Farmer, ex-capitalist entrepreneur
    Permaculture practitioner
    Transition Town Dundas co-founder

  17. Jeremy says:

    From my point of view, the easiest way to talk about the problems is to spend most of the time talking about design. I’ve gone to some of the gun shows and talked with self described right wing gun nuts and a good homestead (urban, suburbian, or rural) design speaks for itself.

    A well designed green building can handle losing power for several days much better then your average single family household. Those rain water cisterns for watering the garden are mighty handy for the several days after an earthquake when the water supply is questionable, just keep a jug of unscented bleach handy. Keeping a pantry and a root cellar are just good ideas even if your source of income is disrupted.

  18. Sharon says:

    Ian, no offense, but I think the one criticism you can’t make is that I’ve not offered any alternatives over the years I’ve been doing this. As for pictures - 25% of all internet subscribers still do it on a telephone line - making this easy to load is important to me.


  19. Monks and missionaries « Slow Coast says:

    [...] of these two social movements which make them unlikely to connect with the mainstream population (part one here; part two here). Hopkins replied with a very civil post, and as of this writing there have been 72 [...]

  20. Do I Have to Hold Hands to Do Permaculture? says:

    [...] author Sharon Astyk, we have Permaculture Future?: Part I and Permaculture Future? Part II. And then from Rob Hopkins from Transition Culture, we have [...]

  21. Reto Stauss (retostauss) 's status on Thursday, 23-Jul-09 20:49:39 UTC - says:

    [...] [...]

  22. nachhaltigBeobachtet says:

    Optionen für den Übergang in eine post-fossile Zivilisation

    Das Ende des Zeitalters billiger Energie (von welchem nur eine Minderheit auf diesem Planeten profitiert hat) ist in Sicht, dazu kommen - sehr wahrscheinlich - klimatische Veränderungen, welche weltw …

  23. Gaiapunk says:

    I think this is a really important discussion with in the permaculture movement as a whole. I have been trying to open up the cultural veins of permaculture with my own efforts at I have be able to find some really great permie resources so this site is definitely worth a look.

  24. simon the marrow says:

    I apologise if this generaly sentiment has been expressed but didn’t have time to read all posts:

    Permaculture is a holistic design methodology that works by observing nature’s patterns. So it’s an approach. Transition Towns/islands/forests/shanty-towns is an application of permaculture principles. It is one of the more visible applications to date.

    Permaculture is the broad approach. If you need emergency preparedness then devise and implement emergency preparedness- ideally with Permaculture principles embedded in it. Don’t ask ‘can permaculture deal with the abrupt shocks’? That’s a typically ‘intelectual’ way of thinking about it.
    Abrupt shocks are part of nature’s pattern so any manifestation of Permaculture which is unable to respond to them is not really ‘doing’ Permaculture but merely pretending. And I agree a lot of people worldwide are probably ‘pretending’ to do permaculture- building raised beds, standing in circles, attaching new age religion to it, using old tyres etc etc. Its inevitable and not without merit by any means. If you want a case study of permaculture pirnciples really being used to respond to shocks then you should look to Cuba in the 1970′s as it underwent shock oil shortages. It might not have been pretty but they coped and permaculture was implicated in their response at a broad level.

    Look, movements often start with the middle class. Its nothing to get hung up over. It doesn’t mean the middle class are morally superior- it just means that a proportion of them often act as instigators. In Cuba a lot of the permaculturists that implemented permaculture based solutions in the 1970′s were white Australians. Really this whole post is about middle class instigators having a moment of crisis that the initial seed that has been spread won’t fully germinate.

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