Thinking about permaculture…
The 11 shortcomings of permaculture
Many of us will be familiar with the SWOT method of analysis. It is the widely used technique to assess Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. This article focuses on the Weaknesses component of the SWOT process. It is a companion piece to an article to be published that will look at the Strengths of permaculture as it has been practiced and as it is presently practiced.
THE IDEAS THAT FOLLOW are not all mine. Some were disclosed when I and others interviewed applicants for Permaculture CoLab’s stewards roles in late 2017. Others have come up in conversation or were discussion topics on permaculture’s international social media. Others have become apparent to me over my nearly 40 years in permaculture.
A focus on weakness is positive thinking about negatives
Rather than simply engaging in negative thinking, identifying weaknesses is the positive thinking that leads to improvement. We need to know about and understand problems before we can fix them.
I agree with the idea that a focus on strengths, on what is working, can improve and increase them. Doing that does not mean we ignore the weakensses, those things that could be done better.
Some weaknesses will go away by themselves as circumstances change. Others will continue to niggle. Some will fester to become threats. This is why we consider weaknesses, so we can avoid them or intervene to turn them into strengths or opportunities. Doing this is a means of implementing Bill Mollison’s dictum: “The problem is the solution”.
That is why this article focuses on weaknesses in the permaculture design system and its application. Its strengths and opportunities will be the subject of an article to follow. Here, I look at permaculture as it exists. The article on strengths will take a look over time because I believe that provides a better perspective on permaculture’s strengths.
My focus on weakensses comes from the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunitues, Threats) process used by organisations. SWOT paints a picture of the strategic situation of an organisation at a particular time.
The purpose of the SWOT process is to assess the condition of, and the challenges facing, an organisation. As well as disclosing those things that are working well and which we might increase, we also find out what is not working well. Identifying weaknesses suggests areas for action to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of an organisation. That is the purpose of this article.
It might seem strange to some readers that this article does not suggest solutions to the challenges it lists. Doing that is not part of the SWOT process. Developing solutions requires an additional analytical and planning process.
This is an incomplete list of what I see as the challenges presently facing permaculture as a design and social movement. I invite you to add to it and discuss the list in the comments. You might also discuss with readers how you would fix these challenges.
Here, then, are some areas in which permaculture might do better.
1. Permaculture is a global movement that doesn’t act like one
Permaculture CoLab, a global permaculture initiative in the process of formation at the time of writing.
Local stays local and is of only local benefit unless networked into some larger program or network.
Permaculture is a global movement but does not act like one. Its practitioners have some awareness of the global reach of the permaculture design system, however their focus on the local acts as a brake on permaculture’s growth as a global movement. While there are practicing permaculture people and organisations in various countries, they do not act collaboratively as a cohesive movement.
In saying permaculture is a global movement, we are talking mainly about English-speaking countries, those in the EU and some in South America and, to a limited extent, South East Asia. There is no definition of what constitutes a permaculture presence in a country and there are questions around whether only parts of permaculture, such as regenerative farming, constitute an aurhentic practice of permaculture without the rest of the design system.
Many of the problems permaculture addresses are global. Permaculture practitioners sometimes act on local manifestations of global challenges. Addressing them locally might improve things locally but does little to address the global cause of the problem. For example, a town or community of interest might take steps to build their resilience to global heating. That might benefit those communities, however it does less to address the causes of global heating and the communities will still feel its impacts.
Were there sufficient organisations and individuals acting on the problem globally, that might change. This does happen to some extent, however most of that happens outside of permaculture.
Local stays local and is of only local benefit unless networked into some larger program or network to scale it up. Treating the local problem without cooperating in some larger network to address its cause is to treat local symptoms only.
The argument is that permaculture needs an organised global presence to address problems at the level at which they exist. CoLab promised to attempt this. It is in its formative stage at time of writing and has been so for some years, appearing to lack a sense of urgency.
Permaculture a global presence?
As a product of a Western liberal society, permaculture spread first to English speaking countries, then to other language groups in the West and later to non-Western cultures. Now, permaculture has a presence in many countries.
The difficulty with claims of permaculture being a globalised practice is that nobody knows how many countries permaculture has a presence in because communication is lacking between permaculture people in different countries and because there is no agreed way to measure what constitutes a permaculture presence in a country. Does the existence of an organisation professing to practice permaculture constitute a bona fide presence? Is the presence of individuals educated in permaculture or a minimum number of active participants an indicator of presence?
Permaculture has spread globally but measuring its distribution is hamstrung by any objective means of doing that, and any agreement as to what constitutes a presence in different countries. The question is about permaculture’s capacity to act cohesively on issues across countries.
2. Design thinking is missing in permaculture education and practice
Comments by some long-serving permaculture educators and practitioners.
Design thinking is applied systems theory.
Permaculture is frequently described as a design system. Design thinking is the methodology of applying a system of design. It is common in the design professions.
The observation made by some in permaculture is that design thinking processes are missing in permaculture courses and more generally in the practice of permaculture. Design thinking does not appear as a topic in many course curricula. This is a weakness in permaculture education and, subsequently, in permaculture practice.
Design thinking can also be missing in decision making in permaculture organisations. The result is that they offer little that is different to any other organisations.
3. The lack of communication among permaculture practitioners limits the development and spread of permaculture
A topic that was mentioned by most interviewees applying for steward roles in Permaculture CoLab. Applicants were people playing influential roles in the countries where they live and in some cases have been working in permaculture for a long time.
Communication distributes know-how and ideas across networks. Without effective communication there is no cohesive social movement.
There is too little communication between permaculture practitioners both internationally and within countries. Information and knowledge is not sufficiently shared, resulting in a lack of knowledge about initiatives.
Lack of sharing what we know and are doing impoverishes permaculture and holds us back. It works against mutual learning.
The availability of websites and blogs maintained by the connectors in permaculture, and their postings and conversations on social media, are the main information channels keeping national permaculture networks in touch. Print magazines like PIP (Australia), Permaculture Design Magazine (USA), Permaculture Magazine (UK) and Permaculture Magazine North America (USA) supplement online sources.
These constitute global and national communications in permaculture, however the CoLab interviewers said it is too little and not effective as a global discussion space. Language may be a barrier for some non-English speakers.
Permaculture has no international learned journal, no equivalent of a scholarly publication, where practitioner research and experience can be published.
A comment made just before the international permaculture convergence in India in 2017 said that there is a lack of means to follow-up conversations started at convergences. The same could be said of Australian convergences.
Prior to the 2018 Australasian Permaculture Convergence, Australian permaculture elder, Bruce Zell, spoke with me about the need for an online conversation space where in-depth discussion could take place. Such a space would attract the thinkers in permaculture. Although participation would be low compared to the conversation on social media, it would offer greater depth and potential for learning and collaboration.
4. Permaculture’s lack of an advocacy capacity leaves it vulnerable
This is a realisation of permaculture practitioners doing projects in public places, whose projects have run into political barriers that threaten to derail or substantially modify them.
It is also the experience of over 35 years of community gardening in Australia.
Without advocacy, individuals and organisations are controlled by others and lack a voice.
Permaculture projects are vulnerable to organised opposition by local people and industry bodies. Advocacy by those bodies influences local government politicians and staff to place limits on and modify permaculture projects. Vulnerability is increased because no regional or national permaculture organisations have the advocacy capacity to counter opposition.
This leaves permaculture projects especially vulnerable to pressure from NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups who don’t like permaculture projects or community garden proposals. With no organisation to counter the NIMBYs, permaculture is effectively voiceless. Local government politicians see votes in supporting the NIMBYs and staff wanting a quiet working life simply go along with their demands regardless of alienating others, and lack any process to objectively and properly assessing the demands and apply due process.
Beyond self-defense of its works, a lack of advocacy makes permaculture invisible in national and state inquiries and invisible at hearings and consultations. This gives the permaculture people limited potential to influence developments and to counter the arguments that would disadvantage it.
5. A lack of publicly accessible evidence that permaculture ideas work places limits on the adoption of the design system
This was mentioned by almost all interviewees in the CoLab stewards interviews and has been mentioned by permaculture practitioners at other times.
To adopt ideas, people must be shown that the cost of adopting them is less than the benefits.
Evidence is needed to show the effectiveness of permaculture ideas. This is especially needed to influence institutions that might make use of permaculture, such as local government.
I learned this when consulting to local government on community gardening policy. In the documentation I produced, the council asked for case studies to assure them that community food production was a viable and socially-beneficial practice. The existence of community gardens in publicly-accessible places provided the evidence that allowed the council to approve commuhity gardens.
Providing evidence requires publicly accessible sites. Private permaculture sites are not freely accessible and are of positive but limited value to display the effectiveness of permaculture. Some open for particular events like International Permaculture Day, however that is for only a single day of the year.
The lack of a learned, industry journal is another contributor to a lack of publicly-visible evidence that the design system’s ideas work. Without verifiable, objective evidence, permaculture is open to allegations of being non-scientific and of limited value in addressing society’s problems.
6. Permaculture has too-limited a connection with domains of life of greatest concern to people
Comments made in informal conversation by permaculture practitioners and others who have some familiarity with the design system and with community work.
Without social connection outside the practice, an organisation or idea risks becoming an echo chamber of little perceived relevance.
Permaculture practitioners and educators place too-little focus on the concerns of people living in the social mainstream. This is especially so in neoliberal economies where the real value of wages has remained more or less stagnant for most workers since the 1980s. This includes families and individuals and their ability to cope financially, especially where people have mortgages, student loans to pay off, children to raise and educate, job security and income to think about.
With the casualisation of working life, more than 30 percent of Australians make their living in the contingent workforce of casual, short-term contract and part-time jobs — the ‘gig economy’. While that suits some, most are there involuntarily. This makes them financially insecure and affects their ability and willingness to spend money of permaculture improvements to their home, if their precarious working life allows them to buy a home. In our big cities, many can no longer afford to buy a home. Rents are excessively high. This is another barrier to spreading permaculture and could become increasingly so as numbers in the contingent workforce grow.
When permaculture focuses mostly on individual solutions such as home food gardening, energy and water efficient home retrofit and, lately, on the ‘retrosuburban’ model of household life, it lacks focus on the economic and social challenges that affect many people. The argument goes that this makes it less-fit as a social technology leading to better ways to live.
7. Social permaculture is too-limited in scope and outlook
Comments made on permaculture social media.
To become a solution, an idea must address social and psychological needs as well as physical.
What some years ago became known as ‘social permaculture’ focuses mostly on group dynamics and decision making. In today’s societies, that is important but too limited.
Social permaculture is a name adopted for elements of what permaculture co-originator, Bill Mollison, called permaculture’s ‘invisible systems’. This led early-phase permaculture to develop a strong component in economics, pioneering Earthbank to stimulate the then-new social investment industry and community exchange systems like LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System), a social credit initiative for cashless trading.
The main focus on group dynamics and decision making is important, however some say the idea of social permaculture needs expanding to include the gamut of social relationships such as those mediated through economics, livelihood creation, organisational structure and government.
8. The focus of permaculture design courses (PDC) is too variable
A number of influential permaculture educators and activists. CoLab steward interviews.
Without focus on a limited set of achievable goals, an idea diffuses its focus and becomes many things to many people rather than specific things to all.
Permaculture education focuses on too-limited an application of permaculture as a system of design. A focus primarily on the individual and what they can do leaves little focus on applications of permaculture design such as community development, community economics, peer-to-peer exchange and the collaborative economy. Too limited a focus limits understanding of the design system.
Permaculture design courses usually teach a common set of concepts such as permaculture ethics, design principles (whether David Holmgren’s or Bill Mollison’s), principles of ecology, the zoned landuse system, some form of organic gardening and the principles of domestic energy and water harvesting and storage.
During interviews for the CoLab steward positions in late 2017, a European permaculture educator and activist said that PDC’s in her country focus mostly on home gardening (she also said that her country’s national permaculture body refuses to recognise the validity of a course in vegan permaculture because the course leaves out animals which are an essential component of permaculture systems and have always been part of design courses). Home gardening is good in itself but less-good as a main focus for design courses (it is linked to issues around food security and food sovereignty, as well as agriculture and landuse, and would best be connected to these larger things in design courses). A focus on home gardening and homesteading ignores the other, equally important elements of permaculture, especially Bill Mollson’s invisible systems of community exchange systems, governance, decision making and democratic process. Those are especially relevant to our cities.
The consequence is a variable understanding of what permaculture is, ranging from it being a system of DIY food production to a design system working towards an alternative social structure. Thus, permaculture becomes a concept of multiple definitions. The result of that can be confusion.
9. Permaculture has lost initiatives it once pioneered or promoted
Informal conversation among permaculture practitioners. Personal observation.
Like living organisms, social movements evolve, shedding some of their content and adopting new. If there is no incoming stream of new, the movement risks diffusion and shrinkage.
Ideas and practices that permaculture practitioners pioneered, though not necessarily invented in earlier phases of permaculture’s evolution left permaculture to take on lives of their own. Although permaculture practitioners participate in those practices, they are now the focus of other organisations. This narrows permaculture in the conceptual sense.
LETS, revegetation, food gardens in schools and social investment are examples. They have left the permaculture fold and now have their own life. Permaculture practitioners can use them, however permaculture can no longer claim ownership in the conceptual sense.
At the same time, permaculture adopted practices that were not permaculture initiatives. Community gardening, already practiced in Australia before Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s first books on permaculture appeared, LETS, forest gardening (described in anthropology and ethnobotany literature and pioneered by Robert de Hart in the UK), organic gardening, renewable energy, water harvesting and storage, the Keyline water management system and more are examples that became part of the permaculture synthesis.
The question is whether practices moving beyond permaculture to a broader audience weaken permaculture and reduce the potential number of participants.
10. Permaculture education can raise false hopes
For any idea to thrive there must be an intellectual, social or economic market through which it can be implemented.
The Permaculture Design Course sometimes attracts people who hope use it to gain employment.
In Australia, it is the certificate and diploma levels of Accredited Permaculture Training (APT) that are nationally recognised by educational authorities as workplace training. The PDC is a community-level qualification that offers only a certificate-of-completion level of qualification.
The PDC does not prepare people to practice professionally as does the multi-year TAFE course in APT. The PDC has been used in the past to add skills to formal qualifications in landscape architecture, architecture, horticulture and other professional work areas. Without considerable practical workplace experience it is unlikely the PDC will be viewed by institutions as a professional qualification.
This is because the PDC lacks the training necessary for professional practice such as the understanding brought by theory, applying for permissions from authorities for construction and landscape modification, worksafe legislation and practices and legal responsibilities.
11. The troika as a planning team limits the potential for better decision-making
I understand the idea of limiting planning or decision-making to a team of three, a’ troika’, originated with Bill Mollison, co-inventor of the permaculture design system.
A sufficient input of diverse ideas is necessary to synthesising something that is relevant, inclusive and workable.
The idea is that by limiting participation in planning or decision-making, a small team of three avoids the argy-bargy and conflict of personality, agenda and ideas that comes when negotiating solutions with a larger group.
Although the troika might simplify and speed-up deliberation, I find no researched, objective findings to validate the idea.
Its limitations include:
- reliance on the knowledge and experience of only three people rather than that of a larger group which would make better-informed plans and decisions
- being perceived as exclusive because its limited participation shuts out people who want to participate
- being seen as contrary to the permaculture value of participation in decision-making
- excluding people with specialist knowledge who could make a contribution
- being devalued because of the lack of measured evidence to support limiting teams to three.
Drawing on my own experience, I have worked with successful teams of up to seven people with different knowledge, skills and backgrounds. What I find more important than imposing a numbers limit is having a skilled facilitator to manage the process of planning or decision-making, someone who is not a decision-maker and whose sole job is management of the process.
Shortcomings can be addressed
I have listed shortcomings of permaculture that are mentioned by permaculture practitioners and, sometimes, people sympathetic to permaculture who are outside the design system.
Some of these limitations became apparent over my decades within the design system. Work in teaching the Permaculture Design Course, in community organisations, local government, international development and as a consultant to local government have made some of those shortcomings apparent to me.
Some of the 11 shortcomings raise the question of whether, after more than 40 years, it is time to upgrade the Permaculture Design Course, to assess its present content, update and modify it and to introduce new content.
The SWOT process, from which this list was developed, would move on to look for solutions to the shortcomings and for ways to increase and improve the items that come up under the ‘Strengths’ component. I can’t see that happening yet because there is no organisation with the interest or capacity to tackle it.