Russ Grayson
Jun 18, 2018 · 14 min read

Is permaculture a social movement?

When the question has been asked most have agreed. Some, comparatively few, have not. Those denying permaculture is a social movement have not said specifically what it is. What they seem to be getting at is that permaculture is more a community of practice than a movement seeking social change. Yes, it is that but it also seeks socio/economic/cultural change. A reading of Bill Mollison’s books with their criticism of our political economy reveals as much.

Bill Mollison’s 1988 book inlcuded critique and ideas for a different politics stated in non-political terms. The book was influential of permaculture practitioners seeking new ways. It supported permaculture’s growing self-consciousness of the time as a social movement.

How is permaculture a social movement?

Let’s fine a social movement as having these characteristics:

  • being organised around an idea
  • having a specific focus that includes some kind of social change
  • seeking to change practices, institutions and beliefs of which it is critical
  • having the capacity to promote its ideas
  • having the capacity to motivate people
  • having capacity to recruit new members or participants
  • being capable of sustaining and engaging with a formal or informal membership
  • encouraging particular types of behaviour of members, whether they be formal or informal members.

Most would reject the idea of permaculture as an ideology. They would cite the disasters that adherence to ideology brought the Twentieth Century and that it continues to do.

Let’s look at permaculture in terms of those characteristics. My comments are based on more than 30 years of experience in different facets of permaculture in Australia.

Organisation around an idea

Permaculture self-organises around a largely undefined set of notions to do with ‘resilience’ or ‘sustainability’. These have grown out of the writings of the creators of the permaculture design system, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They have been further defined through the work of permaculture educators over the years, especially through the basic, community-level qualification in permaculture, the Permaculture Design Course/Certificate.

Aspirations expressed by permaculture practitioners reflect the diverse makeup of permaculture, ranging through resilient living at the level of the household, through activity in community organisations to a small number using permaculture ideas and principles and guided by its ethics to address global issues.

This is a loose organisation around those ideas and different permaculture associations, individuals and educators focus on different elements.

The capacity to promote its ideas

The permaculture design course is the most effective, in-depth means of promoting permaculture ideas. A sometimes more superficial acquaintance with the design system comes through participation in the activities of permaculture’s community-based associations and through shorter, introductory courses in permaculture. These vary in content from a focus on food production at the domestic scale to the introductory course offered at the Randwick Sustainability Hub in Sydney that includes community economics, household resource management (energy, building design, water) and simplifying and organising your home and life.

With the demise of the print publication, Permaculture International Journalin 2000, the movement in Australia lost its unified voice and single source of promoting permaculture ideas. With the arrival of the internet, permaculture fractured into multiple voices on websites and, later, social media. Although many, these now constitute permaculture’s main capacity to promote its ideas and to build a following around them. This has generated a broader understanding and identification with permaculture, though whether that signifies a bona fide social movement is questionable.

That is because a social movement needs a degree of unification and whether agreement with permaculture’s set of principles alone is sufficient to signify that it is a social movement is questionable. What is also questionable is whether the fragmentation of permaculture over multiple social media sites each with their own main focus brings sufficient identification with the movement to create a sense of belonging and unity. Participants on social media may believe they practice permaculture, however the concept of what they mean by that can be wooly. Do they identify with and practice some elements of permaculture, such as home garden food production only, or do they identify with permaculture as a broader social movement encompassing ideas for a new economics, new forms of governance and as a global movement?

The 2018 book, Sharing Cities, included case studies of initiatives that would well-fit inclusion in permaculture as a social movement.

Permaculture seeks to change practices, institutions and beliefs of which it is critical/Permaculture has a specific focus that includes some kind of social change

…building the solutions we want to see rather than campaigning against those we don’t want to continue

Permaculture offered a critique of the political economy of the Western liberal democracies it emerged from. It offered a direction to people in those economies who were critical of them or of aspects of their behaviour. The critique was not sustained in the sense that it grew into a focused political campaign for change. Permaculture’s approach was that voiced by Buckminster Fuller some time before permaculture emerged, that of building the solutions we want to see rather than campaigning against those we don’t want to continue.

This led to a notion of permaculture as a solutions-oriented rather than a campaigning approach. That persists, however it polarises the search for change. Rather than viewing the creation of solutions and of campaigning to stop environmentally and socially destructive behaviours as points on a continuum, some in permaculture have criticised the campaigning approach and positioned their search for solutions as strategically superior.

What permaculture lacks is a compelling narrative about the change it seeks

When we look at permaculture’s capacity to change beliefs, we see the influence of permaculture educators and permaculture literature. Permaculture courses have changed beliefs, mainly by providing different points of view or interpretations that course participants had not considered. The evidence for this comes from comments made by people completing design courses. What some long-term permaculture practitioners ask is how long the enthusiasm generated by courses is sustained after course participants finish the course.

Permaculture has a loose program for change defined generally in its various books, mostly those of co-inventors Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in online media, and in its two sets of design principles.

What permaculture lacks is a compelling narrative about the change it seeks. It has no broad, generally accepted story about its purpose and its existence that is clearly and succinctly articulated in a way that would attract those people ready for change.

The capacity to motivate people

Permaculture has this. It comes through permaculture courses, especially the design courses that offer a minumum 72 hours ot education, most offering more, as well as being evident at the biennial permaculture convergences and at short courses. Convergences act as recharge events, re-motivating and reinvigorating attendees.

Motivating itself is less a challenge than maintaining motivation. We see this in permaculture associations when they do not start new ventures, when meetings become formal and boring and become drudgery rather than something enjoyable. Instead of reinventing themselves, associations sometimes try to perpetuate themselves as they have been. That’s a recipe for irrelevance that can end in closure.

The permaculture design system has many faces, many areas of application, and this can be confusing. People don’t know where to start. Motivation often comes through success in some simple project like making a small vegetable garden or taking meaures to reduce household energy consumption.

David Holmgren, with the late Bill Mollison a co-originator of the permaculture design system, is probably its most articulate thinker of a different politics in permaculture. Through his books and public talks, David is influential in popularising alternative ideas.

Capacity to engage and sustain a formal or informal membership/Recruit new members or participants

This applies to permaculture organisations. They have varying success in achieving it.

The all-too-frequent-go-it-alone approach taken by some in permaculture can limit an organisation’s ability to bring into its knowledge base and methodologies ideas from the sustainability education profession. Permaculture practitioners have sometimes tried to invent their own processes and solutions. There is nothing wrong in doing this and although there has been some success, permaculture has often not adopted useful approaches from organisations the are savvy about social change and how to engage people in it.

Thinkers, educators and authors working in sustainability education have developed models, concepts and approaches to public edcuation that have not seeped into permaculture education. These include ways to discover the readiness for change of course participants so instruction can take the approach most likely to produce the best results. Teaching techniques are a skill which permaculture could benefit from in listening to sustainability educators.

Let’s visit an example of how the sustainability education profession maintains engagement. The example of Randwick Sustainabiity Hub, a local government prototyping of permaculture ideas in an institution. The educators here build on their permaculture introductory course by offering a program of relevant skills development through further courses in organic gardening, forest gardening, the Living Smart course and what, following david Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia book launch, would be called skills development for retrosuburbanising our neighbourhoods, and a course in community leadership. The Permabee garden maintenance project, a linked video production course and regular recharge events of past course participants maintains engagement.

Such a program is too ambitious for community permaculture associations, however a scaled-down version might not be.

More challenging is maintaining engagement among members of permaculture associations. A common participation curve found in voluntary permaculture associations is when people join, attend workshops and talks then, over time, their participation fades. This often has to do with other things in life being prioritised, like work and family. When recruitment falls behind participant loss, the viability of the association is threatened and its continued existence falls to a small number of enthusuasts who become overworked before they, too, drop out. This was the trajectory of Permaculture Sydney Association around 20 years ago, and of Transition Sydney. For an association to persevere and rebuild might call for a radical rethink of its goals and processes.

Social and educational events are valuable for members within travelling distance, however other benefits are needed to keep those further afield engaged. What we see in permaculture and in allied organisations is success in recruiting people not being followed by success in retaining them as members.

Maintaining engagement has proven to be a challenge in many permaculture organisations. Learning from those that have succeeded is needed to sustain participant enthusiasm and engagement.

Encouraging particular types of behaviour of members, whether they be formal or informal members

Evidence suggests a high degree of success in this. People motivated enough to enrol in a permaculture design course will go home to put what they learned, some of it anyway, into action.

Behaviour change is more likely to be sustained where those people join local permaculture associations. Those fare best where they have a member-engagement plan that includes educational and social events, where they have a process to resolve disagreement and where meetings and events are convivial.

There, they learn from others, share their own skills, and develop their expertise. It’s a model of peer-to-peer learning.

Is permaculture a revolutionary movement?

In trying to define whether permaculture is a social movement, we can look at what it tries to do and how doing that positions it.

Revolutionaries oppose something and seek to replace it with something better. What does permaculture oppose?

Generalising, we could say through some of its literature, educators and bloggers, permaculture opposes neoliberal corporate capitalism. This is something of an all-encompassing statement that is not widely articulated within the movement. Opposition is not of the overt campaigning kind. It comes across more as critique than any coherent program to displace neoliberalism. Like much in permaculture, its approach to the neoliberal order is fragmented. A reading or permaculture’s social media discloses that permaculture practitioners oppose different aspects of neoliberalism. Some opposition focuses on corporate power, some on political power, some on environmental and social issues, some on the identity politics of gender or ethnicity.

Does permaculture have a capacity for systems change?

Some say permaculture is a type of stealthy revolutionary movement because it encourages personal change from below. They say growing your own food is a revolutionary act, although how many permaculture practitioners grow what percentage of what they eat is varied. Rather than revolutionary acts, these might better be called defiant acts because they value a degree of self-reliance rather than total reliance on the market system.

Others recite its design principles, usually the set devised by David Holmgren rather than the earlier set of Bill Mollison, as contributing to its revolutionary potential. These, though, are more about the design process and behavioural change rather than political change, which limits them as inspiration for large scale systems change.

If we define revolution as the overthrow of dominant socio-political institutions and their replacement by those of the revolutionaries, then permaculture’s approach is that of building numbers and the impetus of grassroots solutions that would achieve some kind of cultural revolution, though probably not the overthrow of the neoliberal system.

Change from below — a subtle revolution or reform of capitalism?

In building its numbers and potential as a social movement, permaculture relies on the ideas diffusion model developed by Everett Rogers. This locates permaculture at some point in the early mass adoption phase. It would need to move into the late mass adoption phase, with widespread social adoption of its principles and practices, to achieve any revolutionary impact from below. One theory says that when a critical mass of people Adopt some new practice, change from below becomes unstoppable. While others do not deny this and agree that new practices are adopted, capitalism absorbs and adjusts to them and incorporates them in its normal operation, sometimes by creating markets for them led by the same people who saw them as system-changing.

If permaculture ideas fall into this model, it constitutes a reform movement rather than a revolutionary movement. That appears to be the way it is going, a trend furthered by the call over the decades for permaculture to be ‘mainstreamed’. Acceptable, that is, to society’s existing mainstream culture, political and economic milieu. The successful introduction of Accredited Permaculture Training in Australia, which offers certificate to diploma workplace education in permaculture, is an example of mainstreaming in that it provides the formal qualifications for permaculture to be accepted by the education authorities. It installs permaculture as part of the social system from where it can contribute to reform although probably not revolution.

… home and community garden food production, the development of ecovillages and similar initiatives valued within permaculture are all worthwhile but can be accommodated within the neoliberal system and will not contribute to its displacement or replacement

The idea is that of change from within. To achieve that and change the political/economic system, a significantly numerous cohort of practitioners would be needed and they would have to focus on both economic and political power, something permaculture has shown no strength in doing.

Holding back any revolutionary potential in permaculture is the allegiance of some of its practitioners. Especially for those for whom home garden food production is their main application of permaculture. Again, this is defiance of the market system rather than anything that will overthrow it. It situates permaculture as more reform movement than revolutionary. As retired limits to growth lecturer at UNSW, Ted Trainer said, home and community garden food production, the development of ecovillages and similar initiatives valued within permaculture are all worthwhile but can be accommodated within the neoliberal system and will not contribute to its displacement or replacement.

Diversity a limiting factor?

Much of made of diversity as a strength in natural and human systems in permaculture. But can it also be a barrier to change?

Permaculture’s internal diversity comes through the movement’s social, political and economic diversity. Although permaculture has critiqued neoliberal capitalism both subtly and overtly, it has not articulated preference for any particular form of economic system, nor come to any agreement on its politics. Sometimes displaying a go-it-alone approach and a preference for local autonomy, there appears to be an unconscious libertarian mentality underlying permaculture’s practitioners.

The Greens are probably the political party with greatest support among permaculture practitioners, however on permaculture social media there is also criticism of The Greens as there is of Labor. One commentator described The Greens as “economic rationalists on bicycles”. Support expressed for the Liberal Party ( a conservative party with a neoliberal line) is non-existent, however the question has been asked about the voting pattern of more-affluent permaculture practitioners in the wealthier suburbs such as Sydney’s North Shore. With their focus in permaculture on home food production and initiatives in the domestic environment, how do those practitioners vote in these traditional Liberal seats?

Permaculture’s revolutionary potential as a social movement, then, could be restrained by its actual structure, its social diversity.

This photo of the Mayor of Randwick (NSW, Australia) opening the final stage of the redevelopment of a permaculture-inspired retrofitting of a community centre and grounds is evidence that permaculture has become accepted by some social institutions.

The politics of permaculture

Politics of some sort are inherent in any social movement and, like any of those movements, permaculture has its own politics, internal and external.

Read online comments and it becomes clear that permaculture eschews conventional party politics, but not completely. Around 20 years ago, Bill Mollison, long a critic of political parties, floated the idea of a Permaculture Peoples’ Party. A few thought it such a good idea they started to set it up. Others were surprised by Bill’s idea and criticised it, saying it was the sort of thing we try to get away from in permaculture. The idea gained only limited support and soon withered.

Their policies and resistance to environmental destruction makes The Greens the natural inheritors of permaculture’s unarticulated political preferences. The party has made no move to strengthening its relationship with permaculture practitioners or their organisations, probably because they are largely unaware of them and because permaculture practitioners are not politically organised and, perhaos, not numerous enough to form an influential voting block.

Due to its traditional focus on landuse design, it is environmental politics more than social politics such as poverty and social equity that attract most permaculture commentary. This is unfortunate in that it makes for an unbalanced political stance that positions permaculture’s first ethic, care of the Earth, above its second ethic, care of people.

Permaculture’s two political impacts

Permaculture has had two political impacts. Their scale remains unknown as, like much in permaculture, there has been no research into them.

First, doing a permaculture design course has often made people more critical of the dominant socio-political system, or aspects of it anyway.

Second, judging by social media posts and comments, there is a propensity to vote Green among permaculture practitioners. Again, no survey of voting tends in permaculture has been carried out, so the only evidence I can cite is circumstantial.

Permaculture has not articulated a coherent set of socio-political beliefs or goals. Politics is implied, suggested, leaving open its interpretation to individuals. While this makes permaculture more-inclusive, as a social movement it could be a limitation.

A politics of permaculture

Politics is the means by which decisions are made in societies. Ignoring it does nothing to make life better. To paraphrase Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, ‘you might not be interested in poilitics but politics is interested in you.’ That includes your alienation from it because alienation lets the politically-active get on with whatever it is they are doing.

Politics is there in permaculture. It is largely unarticulated. It is confused. It is diversified. It is hidden. Were it to become more overt, it would not have to take the form of party politics. That was tried. It was a fizzer. A permaculture politics would be a form of cultural politics based on the design system’s ethics, overly broad they might be. That would produce a politics of environmental management, regenerative farming systems, social reform and social equity and distributionism.

Permaculture might be more reform than evolution, but as part of a social movement for positive change its practices could form the application side of some other revolutionary politics.

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PERMACULTURE 3.0

Ideas for and stories about a new version of the permaculture design system for new times

Russ Grayson

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I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the road in a minivan for awhile and traveling the Pacific coast.

PERMACULTURE 3.0

Ideas for and stories about a new version of the permaculture design system for new times

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