Permaculture Education

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    Why I will not teach a PDC Course… well, not for a long time.

Why I will not teach a PDC Course… well, not for a long time.

I am a huge proponent of Permaculture. That will not change. But it doesn’t mean that I am a blind follower. I try to balance my absolute wonder with the natural world and the power of regenerative agriculture with my skeptical personality. Permaculture has its detractors and critics (it had them from the start, and it has had them all along), and while I feel that some of the critiques are justified, I do think it is up to us within Permaculture to honestly assess the criticism and to develop solutions (Holmgren’s Permaculture Principle Four: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback).

My latest thoughts have been on the topic of teaching Permaculture which is routinely done through the PDC Course. This foundational course has received its share of praise and attacks.

The Permaculture Design Certificate Course (also known as the PDC Course) is a 72-hour educational experience based upon Permaculture’s co-founder Bill Mollison’s 14-chapter textbook, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. Bill Mollison initially set up this training program as a way to teach Permaculture around the world. There was no “official” governing body. One only had to take a course, based on the original material, and the graduate was issued a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). With a PDC in hand, a person could use the word “Permaculture” to promote themselves or their business for design services or implementation… or teaching. Yes, teaching. If a person has a PDC, they are able to, according to Bill Mollison’s original model, start teaching PDC Courses immediately. I believe Bill Mollison did this intentionally to prevent Permaculture from becoming institutionalized. It has kept Permaculture a true grass-roots effort.

However, this freedom from institutionalization, as with most anti-establishment ideas, has some issues. Here are a few of the problems I see with this model:

1. It allows people with no practical experience to give advice to others with no experience. Wrong information or techniques are promoted and propagated. This allows certain dogmas to be perpetuated without anyone ever asking if the information is correct. (For one example, see my article on Dynamic Accumulators.)

2. It allows teachers to include additional information and/or requirements to the PDC. This can be out of good intentions (usually) or malicious ones (rare, but very damaging). Those with good intentions will think they are helping, but in reality, they are adding unneeded information that strays from the brilliance of the original 72-hour course. Some will add course material in an attempt to influence the students toward a particular mindset, worldview, or social/political ideology. This is disgusting and manipulative at best.

3. It allows teachers to treat the PDC Course as a means to an end, i.e. they see dollar signs with every potential student. Individuals with dynamic people skills and an entrepreneurial spirit will capitalize on this. These are the network marketing type individuals… every person is a “mark”, and they will try to teach until the “well runs dry”. These individuals will either run out of work, put themselves out of work, or continually move to new locations for new targets. The reality is that it takes a lot of time and money to put on a quality PDC Course. If you are “doing it right”, teaching these courses are exhausting and not exactly lucrative. This is why bad teachers put on really poor PDC Courses; they want to make money without the work or attention to detail needed for a quality course.

4. It allows individuals to teach a PDC Course with no formal education or teaching experience. This is a sticky topic within Permaculture. There are those who feel the requirements to teach Permaculture should not be changed; if you have a PDC, then you can teach. The students will decide. Good teachers will rise to the top. Bad teachers will be out of a job. It is now even easier to separate the wheat from the chaff in our modern era of social networking and instant online feedback. However, there are others that feel there should be a governing body for Permaculture. (Ultimately, this debate drives to the real question of “Who is in charge of Permaculture?” I wrote an article about that very question, and you can read it here.) There are other organizations who have decided to fight these problems by creating institutions that provide credentials for those who wish to teach Permaculture. While I still don’t know what I think about this approach, I entirely understand their reasoning. I think they have good intentions, and it looks like they are off to a pretty good start.

Here is the text from one organization that has established teaching credentialing, the Permaculture Institute USA in Santa Fe, New Mexico:

At a minimum, any certificate course shall meet the following criteria:

– The lead instructor is an established Permaculture teacher with a Diploma in Education (beginning in 2015) or equal credentials . Lead instructor is present throughout the entire course and course certificate bears his/her signature.

– The course provides a minimum of 72 hours of direct contact with instructor(s), in addition to group design time, homework assignments, self-study time, hands-on projects, visits to demonstration sites and other learning activities. Courses shorter than 12 contact-days are generally not offering sufficient time for learning and should be evaluated by potential students for their validity.

– Course material is inclusive of, but not limited to, all subjects listed in the PDC Outline.

– Course includes at least one design project exercise or multiple design vignettes.

Currently, there is no unified oversight for the multitude of permaculture courses offered globally. We encourage prospective learners, if in doubt, to request course syllabus from the lead instructor and compare it against criteria listed above or contact us with further questions.

 I bolded and italicized the last sentence because it is so important! If every potential student did this, then I think the need for teacher credentialing would be nil.


Our farm

Our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner, where I will be implementing my design and efforts.

With all this said, I know that I want to be part of the solutions, not the problems within Permaculture. I want to be clear that I have no issues with any particular teacher, nor do I have any issues with those who want to be teachers. That is just not for me at this point. I am not trying to be pious about this, but I know I will not teach a PDC Course for a long time. I have studied Permaculture for well over a decade. I have written many articles about Permaculture. If you read through my articles, you will see that I have worked hard to only share verifiable information. I am a physician and have a background in Biology and have participated in bench work research as well as literature search research. I am pretty good (not perfect!) at sorting through information, identifying the facts, and condensing it into a readable article. But I don’t feel I have enough on-the-ground experience to formally teach Permaculture yet. After moving every 2-4 years for the past 18 years, we have only just settled down on our own farmstead five month ago. How can I speak on the long-term application of Permaculture when I have yet to do it myself?

What I will do is continue to share my experiences. I will share my successes, and I will share my failures. I will be as transparent as possible. I will continually strive to keep Permaculture pertinent, relevant, reliable, and reputable. For that is what I feel Permaculture is. And I believe that is how we will positively move Permaculture forward.


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Who is in charge of Permaculture?

People often wonder who is in charge of the Permaculture movement. In the past few months, I have read a number of comments, emails, and threads on boards where people are discussing, or asking about, who is really in charge of this whole thing. I believe that there are a lot of people who think Permaculture is run by a central person, organization, or entity. That is just not the case.

There are some prominent organizations in the Permaculture world, but there is not a central organization. Permaculture is not a franchise. These organization are trying to organize and lead, but they have no authority over anyone. I support almost all of these organizations, because their goals falls in line with the Prime Directive and Ethics of Permaculture. Unfortunately, some of these organizations don’t always get along, and some struggles for power have developed. I was disheartened to read an email from a reader in another country. He explained how there were two “leading Permaculture organizations” in his country, and they have been fighting and waging a war of words against each other. I think this is an example of people who have lost sight of what Permaculture is all about. Fortunately, this is a pretty rare occurence.

There are also a number of primary “leaders” in the Permaculture world. But again, they are not making decisions that hold any authority over anyone else. Almost all of these leaders are doing their best to research, teach, and implement Permaculture as much as possible. I am so very thankful for their efforts.

I should add that Bill Mollison requested that anyone who uses the word Permaculture to market themselves should take a 72-hour course based on his lesson plan. The course could be taught by anyone who completed a similar course themselves. Bill Mollison did not want royalites or payment in any form for this. There is no binding law to this. It is what I call an ethical copyright. By and large, this has been followed everywhere around the world.

Now, to me, asking who is in charge of Permaculture is like asking who is in charge of Physics. Permaculture is a science. Granted it is different than many other sciences, because it is an ethical science. However, being a field of study, it is not going to have a person or organization “in charge”. I would say that Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein were all leaders in the field of Physics, but they were not in charge. Their words carried a lot of weight. Their opinions mattered (no pun intended) a lot. They had a lot of influence in the world. But they were not in charge and could not dictate to anyone.

The same is true in Permaculture. We have some foundational leaders (Mollison and Holmgren). We have some amazing teachers and practitioners (Lawton, Hemenway, Wheaton, Doherty, and more). We have many others who are doing their own thing, and we or they call it Permaculture (Holzer, Salatin, Savory, and more). But none of these people are able to tell anyone else what to do. Well, they can, but it doesn’t have to be done. It may be a good idea to listen to them, but they hold no power of anyone else.

Just like in Physics or Biology or Mathematics or Music or any other field of study, anyone and everyone has the ability to be a leader. Anyone can make a new discovery that can sweep the world. Anyone can study it and practice it. Anyone can create an organization of like-minded people to promote that field of study. It is open to anyone. Permaculture is no different.

So, who is in charge of Permaculture? No one and everyone!



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Permaculture: Individual Experiences May Vary

My previous article, What is Holding Permaculture Back?, evoked a greater number of responses, both positive and negative, than I expected. My goal was to get people thinking and start a conversation. It appears I succeeded! After reading through all the comments on this site, comments on Facebook, and email responses to this article, I want to expand and clarify a few things.

1. Permaculture is growing at a tremendous rate. I am excited about this, but I want more expansion! I literally want Permaculture taught around the world. I want it taught in elementary and high schools. I want it utilized in businesses and governments. I want it in the agricultural fields of developing countries, and I want it in board rooms on Wall Street. Yes, Permaculture is making huge strides, but it is no where near where it needs to be yet.

2. Permaculture is expanding at the rate it needs to. The acceptance of Permaculture will take time. If it is rushed along too fast, it will either be adopted for the wrong reasons or implemented in a way that is not really Permaculture. I understand this, so I must balance my desire for expansion with reality.

3. Permaculture is more than food. Any person who studies Permaculture for very long soon realizes that Permaculture is about a whole lot more than just growing food. It is a design science. The starting point for most people is growing food, and this is vital. If that was all it was, Permaculture would be a worthwhile pursuit. However, the principles of Permaculture can go into all fields of study, but it doesn’t need to. If you or anyone wants to limit their Permaculture experience to food production, that is great. Don’t let someone discourage this.

4. The vast majority of people involved in Permaculture are great individuals. If anyone thought the negative “types” of people in my article was directed toward the greater Permaculture movement, then they are gravely mistaken. I was also not referring to any one particular person. My previous article described a few types of individuals:

  • the person with an “all or nothing” attitude
  • the person with a “profit is bad” ideology
  • the person who wants Permaculture to be a religion
  • the cranky, curmudgeon Permaculture teacher and/or leader
  • the “enlightened” Permaculturist who just wants to promote themselves

These types of people have the ability to hold Permaculture back, but please, let me be clear. They are not going to stop the global tidal wave of Permaculture. However, they can, as many people have shared, interfere with an individual’s experience. They have the ability to turn a person away from Permaculture one at a time. This is sad. This is what needs to be prevented. And we can help.

5. As a community of Permaculturists, we need to be careful who we recommend. When we recommend a specific Permaculture Design Course, we should make sure to read through the syllabus and check to see the instructors are indeed teaching the 72-hour course as outlined by Bill Mollison. When we recommend a Permaculture farm or a Permaculture video, please consider what this will look like to a person new to Permaculture. Recently, I came across an interesting video about Permaculture. It had some great information and content in it. I was excited, and was planning on recommending this video on my site or Facebook. But then, almost at the end, the video shows a group of people mixing mud for a cob building. There were a number of the people in the video missing key pieces of clothing! Look, I am a physician. I am not phased much by nudity. But what kind of message are we sending with this video… “Learn Permaculture with us, and you’ll be invited to dance naked while we smear mud on your body.” Really? That message will not convince much of the world to learn more about Permaculture.

6. Research. Yes, we need more research. Good research will provide validity to the rest of the world, especially those on the fence and those in government. But good research costs money. This money comes from governments, universities, and the private sector, to name the most common sources. Occasionally, it comes from a person who really loves research and will do it whether they are paid or not. But this is not common. Trying to secure funding for Permaculture research is not a simple process. It has been done, but not much. I think it is possible to do more, but it will likely have to start with someone within the system (e.g. a university professor, a government researcher, etc.). So, yes, we need more research, but it is not going to happen very soon, and not to the level many people want.

We need to keep in mind that research is not the only route to validity for the world. It cannot be our holy grail for acceptance. We can prove Permaculture is valid through results. If the Permaculture farms and businesses and communities explain that their successes are based on design, not luck, then other farms and businesses and communities will want to know more. Governments will want to know more… and they do now! There are no peer-reviewed Permaculture journals, yet a number of governments around the world are seeking Permaculture designers and are implementing Permaculture designs. So again, research studies would be great, but they are not vital. I think the reason for large scale implementation of Permaculture will be the results on the ground.

7. We cannot expect everything for free! Between blogs, social media, online videos, and all the amazing advances of the information age we have access to a wealth of knowledge that we could have only hoped for 20 years ago. In addition, a tenant of modern marketing is to give away a lot of information for free in order to build credibility and loyalty. I love this concept, and fortunately we see a lot of that in the Permaculture world. But it takes time and money to make a video or write a book, especially if it is done well. The people who are actually doing Permaculture, instead of sitting around writing about it (like me way too much of the time… but not much longer! I’m getting tired of being a theorist!), are very busy doing Permaculture. It is a big deal to get them to sit down and write or talk about what they are doing. We should be extremely grateful for the experienced practitioners who are writing about it and sharing videos. But we should not have some sort of righteous indignation about their knowledge, as if we had any rights to it. They owe us nothing. If they decide to give it away, that is great. If they decide to write it in a book and sell it, that is great. If they decide to speak at a conference that costs money to attend, that is great. If they decide to make videos and sell access to them online, that is great.

8. Ultimately, individual experiences will vary. I received comments from people who were thankful I wrote this article. They were put off, sometimes for years, from their first Permaculture experience due to the reasons I wrote about in my previous article. I am so glad they were able to see past the trees for the forest! I also received comments from people who had wonderful experiences from the start. I also had a few comments from angry individuals who thought I was being judgemental. Well, I was. I have no tolerance for people who are going to ruin a great thing. I am not mad at them, but I also have no room for them. In the end, we have to remember that each person will have their own unique experiences. But we also have to keep in mind that while one has a great experience, another may not. We need to openly, and without anger, discuss the variety of ways Permaculture is being implemented. The more we do this, the better each person’s experience will be. But we must not be afraid of confrontation. There are many great Permaculture teachers, leaders, and students in the world right now, but there are also some bad ones. We need to do what we can to increase the positive and decrease the negative. The more positive experiences there are, the more Permaculture is going to be used to design our future and the future of our children… and that is my motivation.



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The Third Ethic… it’s time to identify the mutation

Mutations in nature can be good, they can be neutral, or they can be harmful. Any idea or philosophy or science can also mutate as time and people influence it. Oftentimes, these mutations are truly beneficial for the maturation of that science or philosophy, and other times these mutations can be very detrimental to its credibility and acceptance.

I believe there are two mutations that have occured in Permaculture that have been detrimental to its credibility and acceptance in the world. These mutations have kept Permaculture from becoming more mainstream. It is only because of the integrity and grandeur of the design science we call Permaculture that it has still has gained such international recognition.

So what are these two mutations? The first I will save for my next article. The second is that years ago people bastardized the Third Ethic of Permaculture. I wrote an article outlining all three ethics in this previous article, but I only touched on this topic. I think I was trying to be more non-confrontational at that time, but a recent experience has fired me up a bit more.

The three Permaculture Ethics are:

  1. Earth Care
  2. People Care
  3. Return of Surplus

As I explained in my previous article, the original third ethic was “Set Limits to Population and Consumption”. But that is not what it is anymore. The Third Ethic is now “Return of Surplus”.

People often wonder a few things when they hear this. Who decided to change it? Why did they change it? And did they have the “authority” to change it?

Let’s start with a little history. Bill Mollison and his graduate student, David Holmgren, are named as the co-originators of Permaculture. They published the first book, Permaculture One, in 1978. I truly believe that Holmgren played a very significant role in the origination of Permaculture. However, after the initial creation and huge success of the book, Holmgren sort of disappeared from the international world of Permaculture. He states that he wanted to put these concepts into practice, and he did that for the next decade mainly on his mother’s property and then on his own. From online resources (granted this may not be accurate), David didn’t start formally teaching Permaculture until 1991. During this time, Bill Mollison had travelled the world many times over teaching everyone he could about Permaculture. He became the world leader of the movement. During this time, Bill Mollison founded the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia (PRI). PRI has been the home of Permaculture ever since, and it is truly the hub (or “mothership” as some have called it) for the worldwide teaching of Permaculture.

With all that said, it was PRI who changed the third ethic to Return of Surplus. To be honest, I don’t know when this official change occurred, but these are the three ethics that have been taught for years by PRI. Geoff Lawton now runs PRI, and some may try to say that it is Geoff Lawton who changed it. However, Bill and Geoff taught this information together many times, so it was not that Geoff changed Bill’s original idea.

In my opinion, this ethic was refined or clarified… not really changed.

I believe this ethic was restated as Return of Surplus, because so many people started to use this ethic as a tool to push their own social agendas and political ideals. I also believe that as the science of Permaculture matured, and it is still a relatively new science in the grand scope, a refining of the core ethics may have been needed. This is a common practice in science. A concept or “theory” needs to be refined as more information is discovered and as more applications of that science occurs.

In 2002, David Holmgren published Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. In this book, Holmgren restates the third ethic as Fair Share: Set Limits and Redistribute Surplus. This is a very interesting interpretation of the third ethic. The first part, “Fair Share”, has been used by Geoff Lawton to help describe the third ethic (Return of Surplus). I have said before that “Fair Share” is nice because it rhymes with the other two ethics (Earth Care, People Care), but it is rather vague on its own. “Set Limits” sounds a lot like the original text of the third ethic (Set Limits to Population and Consumption). But “Redistribute Surplus” has a lot of connotations, and depending on your personal worldview, it can mean a couple of things.

If you are of the same mindset as Bill and Geoff at PRI, then this can easily mean “Return of Surplus”, i.e. redistribute the surplus energy back into the systems that care for the Earth and care for People. However, if you are a person with a more socialist or communist worldview, then it can easily mean, “if you make more than you need, then you should give it away to other people… including those who have done nothing to earn it”. Whether this is what Holmgren meant or not… I don’t know. I honestly doubt it, but it is still out there as a competing Third Principle of Permaculture.

There is nothing wrong with being altruistic. In fact, I encourage it. I also think the idea of communisim is rather nice, but time and time again history has proven it to be unsustainable.  Unfortunately, the ideology behind this mutated iteration of the Third Ethic often gets pushed on new students. They are taught that if they really want to practice Permaculture the “way it was designed”, then they should live in a commune, own nothing, and give away all the things they produce. If you produce apples, then you can eat them or sell some of them at a Farmer’s Market to cover your rent, but the rest should be given away. And if you produce something like a book, then it should be given away for free, this is true of music and teaching as well.

This is the concept that has pervaded Permaculture for too long. This, I believe, is a big reason why Permaculture has not spread more through the world. Who wants to put all the work and effort, energy and resources into a project just to have a bunch of free loaders demand rights to the fruits of your labor? How will a person be able to feed their family and pay the bills if everything they work for is given away for free?

Here is an example I came across and why this article was written:

Geoff Lawton recently released an online Permaculture Design Course which I am currently taking and very excited about. It was not cheap, but it is less expensive than many live courses. It is half the price of the courses Geoff Lawton teaches in-person, and you don’t have to pay airfare to fly to Australia. In an online message board, one person stated with righteous indignation, “If Geoff was truly practicing Permaculture and adhering to Permaculture Ethics, then he would give this course away for free.”


Do I blame this person? Yeah, sort of. But I also blame the rest of the Permaculture practitioners who are either flat out promoting this ideology or are passively ignoring it. Permaculture is not about socialism. It is not about living in a commune. It is not about working for free. It is a science. It is about sustainability. These people do not understand that it is not sustainable to give everything away. They do not understand that making a good and decent living is not anti-Permaculture.

Until we can sever the idea of Permaculture being a new expression of socialism or communism, then we will not break into the mainstream. It is time we cull the mutated Third Ethic, and take Permaculture to the masses!

Next time, I will tackle my other reason Permaculture is not more mainstream. Stay tuned!


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Happy Permaculture Day… Earn your PDC!


Today, 5 May 2013, is International Permaculture Day!

Please head over to  to see if there are any events near you. If you can’t make it to any local events, then please check out There will be events taking place around the world which will be broadcasted for 24 hours… and you can go back to the events that you missed.


Geoff Lawton, director of the Permaculture Research Institute.

So what, you may ask, will I be doing on International Permaculture Day? Starting an online Permaculture Design Course taught by Geoff Lawton! This course was just opened for the first time yesterday, and the enrollment is almost closed. If you have any interest in this, please check out

Happy Permaculture Day!

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