The permaculture movement appears to have reached a crossroads. As a holistic design system based on systems thinking, ecological principles and energy literacy, permaculture has the potential to have a transformative impact on how we sustainably operate our social, economic and agricultural systems in a period of converging global crises. Indeed this promise is what led me to complete a permaculture design course at CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne earlier this year.
To become transformative at a societal scale, the permaculture movement will likely need to become more organised at an international level. This endeavour will not be easy. Indeed it might be more accurate to think of permaculture as both a movement of practitioners using permaculture as a design system AND permaculture as a diverse collection people working on local projects applicable to local conditions, who may have little in common with each other beyond the permaculture principles with which we practice. The challenge will be to combine the traditionally diffuse horizontal organisation of the permaculture movement with the benefits of scale that might come from greater coordination internationally.
In the past two months I have become involved in an initiative called Permaculture’s Next Big Step, an initiative that was born at the 2013 International Permaculture Congress in Cuba. This project brings together some of the most thoughtful permaculture thinkers from around the world to explore potential pathways for further international coordination across the permaculture movement.
About Permaculture’s Next Big Step: At the International Permaculture Convergence (IPC) in Cuba, 2013, it was formally recognised that the permaculture movement worldwide would benefit from greater coherence at an international level. The Next Big Step project was formed to facilitate a global consultation on what we need, how we can work together, and what we can achieve. By reading this, you are already part of this process. At the next IPC in the UK in September 2015, the results of these surveys and discussions will be presented for approval and action.
This contribution represents a sketch of my preliminary thoughts, which I am keen to flesh out and modify through discussion with fellow travelers in the permaculture movement. I am very much open to persuasion on new ideas and look forward to learning from the wisdom and experience of other permaculture enthusiasts from around the world.
What is permaculture?
It is not my intention to describe the characteristics of permaculture as a design system here; there is a vast literature available exploring this territory. Rather, for the purposes of Permaculture’s Next Big Step, I will instead think of the permaculture movement in terms of its core structural elements…
- 3 permaculture ethics.
- 12 permaculture design principles.
- A collection of strategies and interventions that are deployed to actualise permaculture designs, many of which are not exclusive to permaculture.
- A network of permaculture practitioners located around the world.
From my perspective, the purpose of permaculture from a design standpoint is to re-create human agricultural, social and economic systems to mimic and harmonise more intimately with ecological systems, such that they become sustainable (according to the ‘hard’ definition of sustainability). Beyond this, permaculture is largely context-dependent. The goals of permaculture practitioners depend on their unique needs and local ecological, social, economic and political conditions.
As a movement of networked people and organisations, permaculture can generate a number of ancillary benefits, depending on local context. These benefits may include (but not be limited to) establishing working models for post-growth agricultural, social and economic systems, in both the developed and developing world; providing communities with increased sovereignty over subsistence, energy generation and food supply; and helping practitioners to reconceptualise how we think about production, work, community, spirituality and the natural world. These benefits are shaped by the three permaculture ethics: care for the Earth, care for people, and fair sharing of the Earth’s bounty.
Ethics in any context are a set of rules for right conduct. In the case of permaculture, the three permaculture ethics are universally accepted and applicable. Values, on the other hand, are the collection of assumptions and ideals that inform what we conceptualise as the “permaculture way of life”. While we share many values across the global permaculture movement, many values are context-dependent or highly individualised. If we are aiming to establish common ground across the diverse global permaculture community, the permaculture ethics present as a more appropriate foundation than a contested set of value propositions.
Evolution of the permaculture mission
We should distinguish here between the mission of permaculture as a design system and the mission of a global permaculture movement, which is the focus of Permaculture’s Next Big Step. While the broad permaculture mission is articulated in the permaculture ethics, the mission of their implementation is again dependent on local context. The permaculture “movement”—as the collective of permaculture practitioners working in local contexts—could benefit from a global node that exists to help permaculture practitioners to achieve their local mission, whatever that mission may be. It should not be the prerogative of the movement to define the mission of any local project.
As anyone familiar with international environmental politics will attest, there are significant issues related to socio-economic and environmental justice and historic responsibility for environmental degradation that are pertinent to our discussion. The specific missions of permaculture practitioners are inevitably nested within these debates. Any top-down prescription for global permaculture practice may unnecessarily risk alienating many permaculturalists, particularly in the developing world and in lower socio-economic status areas in developed countries, not to mention violating our permaculture design principles related to small-scale solutions, diversity and the need to accept feedback. In so doing, we also would risk stalling momentum for greater global coordination across the movement.
Permaculture’s Next Big Step is attempting the incredibly bold task of integrating the loosely connected entities and individuals practicing permaculture into a more cohesive global “movement”. By our very nature, permaculturalists are suspicious of vertical hierarchies and top-down power structures. However, there are benefits to be gained from organising the movement at a larger scale. Our task is to do this through horizontal networking that facilitates linkages, education opportunities and resources sharing across the movement while preserving local autonomy.
There are numerous models from which to choose that may be applicable to this project, such as the anarchic horizontal organisational model used by the Occupy movement, which itself is an umbrella for a diverse network of supporters. The theory of chaordic organisation pioneered by Dee Hock, in which systems combine the characteristics of chaos and order, is also a promising model for this project.
A global node of the movement should therefore be facilitative rather than prescriptive. If the global node is to be facilitative, what is it facilitating?
- Linkages between permaculture practitioners around the world.
- Access to knowledge and resources from across the global network.
- Education opportunities.
The “patterns to details” design principle is useful here. Decentralisation and re-localisation are the trends we are working with, both as a consequence of climate change mitigation, ecological degradation and peak oil and economic contraction, as well as the promise of declining marginal costs of production in many sectors of the economy brought about by new technologies. If we become too details-focussed as a global node, we may risk creating a self-defeating centralising tendency that works against successful local-level adaptation to these global forces.
Although I’m open to suggestion, my tentative view at the moment is that it should not be within our remit to define and speak for the movement, but we can facilitate linkages, resource and knowledge sharing between members of the movement.
Permaculture’s Next Big Step is an ongoing project for which your feedback would be greatly appreciated. Please leave your responses in the comments thread below, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributions from other members of Permatulture’s Next Big Step…
Stella Starhawk (US)
Gaia University (US)