“I wish we could avoid the “P” word.”
“I practice Permaculture, but I never use the word.”
“If you mention sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, ecology, and so on, you are fine. But as soon as you say ‘Permaculture’, they will ask you to leave, shut the door, or hang up the phone.”
I have heard variations of these statements for years. The people who make these statements are typically individuals who are working closely with those in mainstream agriculture. They may be conventional farmers or ranchers who have discovered the science of Permaculture and have converted their operations. They may be first-generation Permaculture farmers/ranchers who are positively involved with their community. They may be consultants who help well-established or brand new farmers/ranchers develop more holistic, sustainable, and regenerative management systems. The bottom line, though, is that these people are speaking from experience. They have had the door slammed in their face when the land owner hears the word “Permaculture”.
I want to dive into this issue. I am sure there will be people who disagree, in whole or in part, with my take on this topic, but I believe we need to be talking more openly about this issue. Because it is an issue in the Permaculture world. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Talking about it, working through the issues, and being open and honest about it are the only ways to resolve it. So let’s start…
I believe, as I have said, that the people who make these statements are telling the truth. I do believe they have had positive experiences with certain individuals until the word Permaculture is used. Then they are shut down. It is important that I am clear. This does happen. However…
I believe that these experiences occur way less, and are often significantly less dramatic, than it appears. It is human nature to remember, and tell the story of, negative experiences. These are the stories that stick with people. They have a big impact on the person who experienced it and on the person who hears the retelling. This is true in any industry from restaurants to cell phones to medicine. It takes dozens, or more, positive experiences to undo the damage of one, single, negative experience. I have been studying and talking about Permaculture for over a decade, and I have never had one of these experiences. I have spoken with many, many farmers and ranchers about Permaculture. While they don’t always agree with my assessment, we at least have a decent conversation about it, and some have been very interested. To be fair and honest, I am not a consultant, and I have yet to practice Permaculture on a broad scale (which is a significant issue I will talk about next), so I am not in the same position as some of those who have had these negative experiences. However, I would love to know, from these individuals who have had these negative experiences, how many times they have had a negative experience versus how many times they have had a positive one. I think this is a very important part of the equation.
We need to address why these negative experiences do occur. I believe, based on the stories people tell, that these negative experiences are a direct result of prior Permaculturists who are, to be honest, complete idiots. Every field of study, every area of interest, has their share of idiots, and Permaculture is no different. Imagine this scenario…
Imagine you are a conventional farmer. You truly believe you are helping to feed the world. Yes, you do think there are some significant issues that should be dealt with, but you are doing what father and your grandfather have done for decades, and it works. You provide “food for the world”, and you provide an income to care for your family. Then one day, someone shows up at your farm or at the farm store or randomly on the street in a chance conversation. They tell you that you are destroying the world. They tell you that you are the cause for climate change (which you are not really sure you believe is occurring anyway)… oh, and you should become a vegetarian, too. They tell you that you need to change what your family has been doing for generations, and do it now, to save the planet. They tell you that you can actually make more money with only a fraction of the work. They tell you that you can create Utopia on Earth, and Gaia will reward you for it. They tell you to embrace Permaculture. Then, if the conversation hasn’t been too confrontational yet, you ask about their experience history. They look a little confused for a moment, a little unsure of themselves, and then they tell you they have never actually farmed. They tell you they have only just started a garden this year for the first time, but they have a lot of great tomatoes. They tell you they have no idea how to transition from a farm with a steady cash flow to a Permaculture paradise while still being able to provide for your family and not lose the farm. But they did take a 72-hour course that involved mud baths and drum circles, and they are confident that it will work.
Yes, I took a little liberty in making this a worst case scenario… sort of, because this is not that far from the stories I have heard. It appears that most of the time it is the well-meaning, but inexperienced, new Permaculturist who is motivated to change the world that is causing these problems. In this scenario, other than making other Permaculturists look bad, no true harm was done. The real damage is done when an inexperienced Permaculturist convinces a farmer to make significant changes… and things fail.
But we need to be level headed about this. This occurs in mainstream, conventional agriculture all the time, but because the recommendations were given by an agricultural extension agent or a university, all is forgivable or at least accepted. And let us not forget that these mistakes have been made by the best Permaculturists as well. I vaguely recall a story Bill Mollison told where he is compared to public enemy number one in a certain town. He recommended, and implemented, the large-scale planting of a tree with large thorns (if I remember correctly) that ended up being the bane of any wheeled vehicle in the entire area. He relates how they curse his name to this day!
Permaculture is not just an alternative approach. I have heard people say, “I use Permaculture when it fits, and I use other methods when they are more appropriate.” This is fundamentally different than my view. Permaculture is a filter that all methods, interventions, and actions pass through before being implemented. The specific parts of the filter are Permaculture’s Prime Directive (The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for own existence and that of our children.) and Permaculture’s Three Ethics (Earth Care, People Care, and Return of the Surplus). As a physician, I have the privilege to practice the only other ethical science that I know, medicine. The ethics of medicine (Hippocrates’ charge: First do no harm) guides how medical providers should approach every decision with their patient. Permaculture is the same. We may use any method or action as long as it passes through Permaculture’s ethical filter. There is not a specific “Permaculture” method or system. I created the image above, based on Geoff Lawton’s description of the Permaculture Wardrobe, to illustrate how all methods, actions, and fields of study or design fits within Permaculture.
Avoiding the word Permaculture is the wrong approach. I also don’t think we need to use it excessively either. However, if what we are doing is, indeed, Permaculture, then don’t be afraid to use the word. Permaculture is a science, a design science. Engineers do not avoid using the word Mathematics. Astronauts don’t avoid using the word Astronomy. Why should we, as Permaculturists, as planet regenerators, avoid using the word Permaculture? Because some people don’t like it? Really? We need a unified approach in my opinion. How about we use the word, use it often, use it appropriately, and then implement it with excellence!
The illustration above is mine. Feel free to share it, but please don’t change it. If you would like to use it for a publication or project, please let me know!