Forty years ago this year a book launched a new idea, an idea that became a new design system and a social movement. Caller Permaculture One, it was the work of Bill Mollison, then teaching at the University of Tasmania, and David Holmgren, at the time a student of landscape design at the College of Advanced Education in Hobart, Tasmania.
Followed a year later by Permaculture Two, a limited amount of media coverage ensued, however it was sufficient to spark interest among those who were ready for the books’ message, those who were ready for change. They became permaculture’s early adopters.
By 1980, Bill realised the time had come to bring those early adopters together so they could learn more. He organised the first permaculture design course on his family property in Stanley, on Tasmania’s Bass Strait coast. This launched Permaculture Version 1.0.
These early adopters were people searching for some new, better way of living but who could not find anything. Permaculture seemed to be the idea they were looking for. As one of them said, permaculture recognised their dissatisfaction and gave it a way forward. Returning home to the Australian mainland after the first permaculture design courses, they set up permaculture associations. The idea started to spread. Permaculture as a social movement was in birth.
The years from the publication of Permaculture One in 1978 to around 1985 are the time when permaculture was devised, when it was first articulated in those two books and at those first design courses, and during which it spread to a growing band of early adopters. They fulfilled the primary role of early adopters by turning the ideas of the originators into practical examples, and inspiring and recruiting others.
By 1985, some of those early adopters were offering their own permaculture design courses. Permaculture was taking its first steps.
Permaculture 2.0–1985 to the present
Having gained its foothold in the ‘alternative’ movement — a sizeable social movement of the late 1960s to the 1980s attracting mainly a youthful following seeking better ways of living in city and country) — and with other early adopters, by the middle of the 1980s a small band of permaculture educators was offering courses in cities and towns around the country. This started Permaculture Version 2.0 — the consolidation, growth and diversification of permaculture as a practice and social movement.
During this period:
- permaculture was taught by a growing number of educators through permaculture introductory and design courses
- local and regional permaculture associations were established
- starting in the 1990s, permaculture attracted mainstream media attention through articles in magazines and TV programs like Heartlands and Global Gardener, the four-part series on permaculture broadcast a number of times by the national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC); both programs took permaculture to Australia’s social mainstream and recruited more practitioners; the design system was on its journey from the social fringe and the alternative subculture into the mainstream society; in recent years permaculture has been further legitimised by the ABC TV program, Gardening Australia
- permaculture diversified into new practices that went beyond food production in home gardens such as social permaculture, permaculture in international development, permaculture in schools and other applications
- Permaculture Australia, the national entity, launched permaculture’s national workplace training system, Accredited Permaculture Training
- although PacificEdge’s permaculture design certificate course was accepted as a replacement for the University of New South Wales’ general studies course in the 1990s, recent years brought the first masters degree in permaculture design at Central Queensland University
- recently, the centrality of people to permaculture and to systems has been recognised with the appearance of ‘social permaculture’; this new application of permaculture design focuses on decision making and planning with groups, however some practitioners see a broader application for social permaculture that includes economic, social and political relationships.
This was permaculture’s time of growth and maturation. Those first tentative steps of earlier years lengthened into a confident stride.
Permaculture 3.0 — the time from now
Both within Australia and globally, permaculture has evolved into a distributed network. There is no head office, no central authority. It has grown into a self-organising system.
This brings challenges and advantages. Challenges in defining what should be taught in permaculture design courses in different places and the advantage that permaculture is now a practice dispersed over towns, cities, countries and the globe.
While many of its practitioners are critical of the globalisation of economies, permaculture has benefited from some elements of globalisation:
- the globalisation of civil society ideas
- the globalisation of democratic ideas
- the globalised communications brought by the internet and, more recently, by social media.
Capacity for growth — unlimited, or not?
Despite this, there is an open question around permaculture’s capacity for growth in some regions. Gaining its initial foothold in the open societies of the liberal democracies, permaculture started its international spread to countries in the so-called lesser-developed countries, such as India, during its Permaculture 2.0 phase. It is now established in some South East Asian, African and South American countries.
Recently, interest has come from individuals in China and it remains to be seen whether Permaculture, with its critique of socio-political systems and with its emphasis on local self-management, can co-exist with authoritarian regimes such as those of China, Russia and some Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps it can co-exist as a system of food production. Beneficial that might be, there remains the question whether permaculture can be reduced to only a single or only a few of its components and still be called a socio-environmental design system.
Even if it becomes a civil society practice in those countries it could well be suppressed were the state to perceive it as a threat. Permaculture, after all, is the product of Western liberal democratic societies, many of the beliefs and practices of which are embedded within it. The question of whether it could have evolved in any other type of society is unknown.
Where to now for permaculture in this Permaculture Version 3.0 phase?
An influential person in Permaculture CoLab, an organisation based in the UK with participants in a range of countries, said that permaculture is the only global movement that doesn’t act like one. Colab wants to support national and regional permaculture organisations and bring a more cohesive global presence to permaculture. Perhaps that, making permaculture a cohesive global social movement, is a fitting goal for Permaculture 3.0.
In a global survey of permaculture practice and during interviews for roles within Permaculture CoLab, two needs were independently identified by influential permaculture practitioners in different countries:
- permaculture needs to demonstrate that its solutions work
- permaculture practitioners and organisations need to improve their global networking.
The call for improved networking can equally be applied to permaculture entities at the national, state and regional levels. What a food sovereignty advocate said about the myriad local food initiatives appearing at the time could also be said of permaculture: local stays local unless it is linked into larger networks.
Those would be useful foci for permaculture practitioners and permaculture organisations within the Permaculture Version 3.0 context.
Stimulating the idea of Permaculture Version 3.0 was a presentation I made at Australasian Permaculture Convergence 13 at Karunda, Far North Queensland. For the Convergence, I produced a short e-book outlining the idea as I saw it then (https://pacific-edge.info/2015/03/towards-permaculture-3/).
The idea of permaculture as a socio-environmental movement is not accepted by all its participants. They say it is more a practice than a movement. It is a practice, or really a grab-bag of practices from which the most appropriate are selected for the circumstances, however it is also a social movement because it displays the characteristics of such movements:
- a sense of membership, although not a formal membership, composed of a loose identification by participants as permaculture practitioners
- a core belief, epitomised through the three ethics of permaculture (care of the Earth, care of people, sharing what’s spare — a type of distributionism) — supplemented by two compatible sets of design principles (a set developed first by Bill Mollison and one developed later by David Holmgren) that are applicable in different circumstances; some practitioners roll these into a single combined set
- a loose and largely-undefined set of characteristics that distinguish permaculture work
- a sense of direction and action variously described as developing ‘resilience’, ‘regenerative systems’ or ‘sustainability’ the are related to the ethics
- an informal leadership of influential permaculture thinkers, authors, educators and bloggers and, more amorphously, leadership emerging from the actions of the greater permaculture network.
These characteristics give permaculture a loose cohesion, a loose sense of being a social movement although one fragmented and dispersed. This fragmentation is evident in the various definitions of permaculture, some of which focus on land management, others taking a more comprehensive view. Perhaps those coming closest to a true definition are the definitions describing permaculture as applied systems thinking.
A definition better suited to Permaculture 3.0, the system permaculture is evolving into, is this:
Permaculture is a platform of ethics, principles and practices upon which its practitioners build useful applications.