Getting the “Cult” Out of Permaculture

Over the last year, I have visited a number of permaculture centers and learned a bit about the history and trajectory of the movement. I have found quite a lot to like and met some very intelligent, hardworking, remarkable people. Notwithstanding, I ran into an ideological hornet’s nest quite a few times on a variety of issues, undoubtedly due to both my skeptical, inquisitive nature and my gravitation to controversy. I also must say that, at times, the opposition to my questioning felt cultish, not in the sense that any nefarious plans were being drawn in secret, but in the sense that devotion to certain principles was beyond any criticism and unworthy of examination, as well as a sense that the movement drew in people more based on its ability to provide an emotionally satisfying narrative rather than an attraction to substantive ideas. I would like to also add the caveat that the following criticisms hardly apply to everyone I met in these circles, as many were actually quite welcoming of my questions and even shared some of my concerns. However, I felt there was a substantial portion of people who did, at times, deserve these criticisms.

Permaculture, as founder Bill Mollison defined it, does not appear to take any particular issue with science or skepticism (Mollison voiced his disdain for spiritualism). But one thing that nearly everyone seems to agree on is that permaculture lacks a clear, agreed upon definition — an issue that could elicit charges of obscurantism and a resistance to scrutiny. In any case, perhaps its most accepted (and uncontroversial) is a social and agricultural system utilizing the patterns and systems used in nature. The claim is that these systems, if properly constructed, would not only be sustainable but would be truly regenerative. That is, not only would they allow for human settlements to sustain themselves, the system would create perpetual and autocatalytic improvements over time. Instead of conventional agriculture, which degrades the soil quality and presents a host of environmental problems, permaculture’s agriculture aims for low-input, hight-output production that improves biodiversity, soil quality, and many other aspects of the environment. This is a seemingly unexceptionable goal and creates an immediately attractive basis for the movement. The question of whether permaculture can truly deliver on this goal (namely, feeding and meeting the energy demands of a world with seven billion people), is hotly debated, and unlikely to be resolved any time soon (frankly, I am skeptical, but would love to be proven wrong).

What can be more immediately addressed is the importance of permaculture projecting a reputable, science-based image, lest it confirm the most negative stereotypes of the movement as a bunch of hippies puttering around in an unproductive garden and cherishing an illusory self-sufficiency. In a scathing critique of polyannaish, New Age thinking, Ireland-based permaculture teacher Graham Strouts recalls a story of a group hoping to collect data at a permaculture homestead, only to be rejected because they were, “just not interested, that’s not what [permaculture] is about.”

I confess that this story does not surprise me, as I frequently ran into the criticism that “Western science” was “reductionist”, unable to keep up with the complexity of permaculture, and an unnecessary endeavor in refining permaculture principles and practices. I have no doubt that if this attitude dominates within permaculture circles, it will remain a niche subculture with little impact. As a skeptic with a sincere interest in finding solutions to environmental problems, I want permaculture’s best ideas to succeed but its resistance to mainstream assimilation, namely, a reluctance (or indifference) to submit itself to the rigors of science, is frustrating. I am all for creating a system that allows both humans and the earth to flourish, but just wishing an idea to be true does not make it so, and the lack of science surrounding the topic creates a nagging anxiety within me, particularly when some thrust it up as our only salvation.

The movement’s semi-religious fervor haunted me for much of my time visiting these centers and it is not so much the content of permaculture, strictly speaking, that advises this cultish mentality but the intellectual spheres that surround permaculture. As with all philosophies and movements, the space between their textbook definition and how that actually manifests can be enormous. I have repeatedly run into flagrant appeals to nature when discussing topics like GMO’s, geoengineering, vaccination, and the like. Some also appear to setup a Manichaeism between the enlightened “permies” and ignorant outsiders. Sadly, various conspiracies were commonly trotted out, including, but not limited to, UFO’s, 9/11 Truth, chemtrails, repression of cancer cures, and rigged elections.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the first to remark on such an ideological morass, and people far more qualified and experienced with the movement have diagnosed this issue. In particular, I recommend researcher Peter Harper’s piece “Permaculture: The Big Rock Candy Mountain”, as not only does he apply incisive analysis, he has 30+ years of experience within the movement.

“A cynic would say this lack of quantitative testing [within permaculture] is not accidental, because it might reveal that many favourite notions are false, or at least not what they are cracked up to be. Most people attracted to Permaculture are young, dreamy idealists looking for some kind of system to structure their activities and impart meaning. It does not matter much whether things ‘work’ because you are not obliged to depend on them. It is their symbolic value that counts. I have encountered numerous ‘permaculture gardens’ with abysmal levels of productivity that have nevertheless persuaded their creators that they are virtually self-sufficient in food. A few measurements and numbers would quickly dispel this illusion, but Permies just don’t do numbers.
In this respect I am sorry to say that the Permaculture movement has not taken itself seriously. This is a pity because it really could have a lot to offer.”

— Permaculture: The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Thankfully, there are those in the movement who are interested in quantifiable analysis. Rafter Sass Ferguson, a Ph.D in Crop Sciences, is trying to bring more quantitative data to permaculture. Although it appears that Rafter and I would disagree on issues like GMO’s (I think GMO’s could be used effectively alongside permaculture techniques), I strongly support his (and others’) efforts in this regard and hopefully others will follow. This kind of research and scrutiny is the only way permaculture will overcome its cultish affiliations and substantiate its principles with evidence. If permaculture is all that its most devoted proponents say it is cracked up to be, there is nothing to fear from such investigation. Moreover, this is the only path to its proliferation and widespread acceptance.