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THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 6: Trouble and triumph in the new century

THE NEWS CAME unexpectedly and with a suddeness that shocked many. Things had seemed to be going well… permaculture was on a growth curve… the community associations that formed the backbone of the design system continued their work… courses continued to attract particiants.

Thus it was with something of a shock that the news from Lismore in the early winter the year 2000 hit many. The Permaculture International Journal—the PIJ that had sewn together the web of a geographically scattered network—was to cease publication. The last edition would be published in June of that year.

To say that the news was unexpected and that it took all but those in the know by surprise is understatement.  But what permaculture practitioners accepted as a fixed and bright star in the permaculture firmament was really a somewhat loose, bright lamp. Why? Through its more than 20 years of publication, PIJ had never been more than a financially marginal business proposition. Robyn Francis had guided the Journal as it journeyed into the realm of mainstream magazine publishing in the second half of the 1980s, but as the 1990s moved along the PIJ faced more than one financial crises that resulted in restructuring and job losses.

I had visited Steve Payne, then editor of the PIJ, at its Lismore office a number of times. That was located adjacent to the Lismore City Farm, an example of permaculture ideas being scaled-up as a commercial market garden in the suburbs, itself a sign of hope that the design system was entering the mainstream. But the last time I visited Steve he told me about the financial situation of the magazine and suddenly, in seeming contrast to the city farm being built outside, the future didn’t look so rosy for PIJ. Nonetheless, after a restructure PIJ survived for a few more years until that fateful first year of the new millenium.

Increases in cost brought by the federal government’s new GST (Goods and Services Tax) added to the financial squeeze brought by rising paper, printing and distribution costs combined to finally push PIJ over the line into financial unviability.

Falling sales contributed to the demise of the Journal and speculations were offered to explain it:

  • there were more readers than buyers—the PIJ was passed around from reader to reader rather than everybody buying their own copy; this reduced sales and income to PIL and eventually contributed to its financial unviability
  • the content of the journal had become less relevant to readers
  • the material was geared too much towards people new to permaculture and was less relevant to practising permaculturists, an outcome of distributing it through newsagencies.

These were possibilities offered in discussion, however  comment from a friend who was one of the Sydney teaching team on our permaculure design course suggested that some of the readership, including herself, no longer subscribed to PIJ because it printed much the same content as it always had done. There wasn’t enough that was new. Another active permaculture practitioner in Sydney said he would have preferred to subscribe to the defunct Permaculture Edge, had it still existed, because the articles it published were more scholarly.

It was with an unexpected suddeness that the permaculture community learned that it lacked the numeric clout to make PIJ economically viable. Whether this had to do with content or with the financial reality of a comparatively small readership in an environment of rising costs remain open questions. The reality is that print magazines do struggle in Australia  due to small readerships and competition from both local and imported publications. Maybe not just in Australia though. In 2010 The Ecologist, a UK magazine that had focused on environment and sustainability since the 1970s announced the end of its print edition. The Ecologist is now an online subscription journal.

Cascading closures

Joy Finch was an entrepreneurial woman in her thirties who lived in the rural Victorian city of Castlemaine. She was very much an enterprising personality who I had first met on a tour following the permaculture convergence in Western Australia.

As well as her ability to get things done (she would later organise a successful speaking engagement for David Suziki in Castlemaine) Joy was memorable for her head of neatly cut red hair which smehow seemed to complement her bright character.

I think it was at a media in permaculture workshop I did with Steve Payne, at time of writing the editor of the ABC’s Organic Gardener magazine, that she showed me a substantial looking newsletter on environment and landcare that she published. I had expected something quite modest but here was a quality publication that did her credit. I didn’t know it at the time, but that newsletter would soon morph into Green Connections, a magazine reporting permaculture and other sustainability news and for which I would become a columnist. Like PIJ, it would be distributed through newsagents and rely on advertising to make ends meet. This would bring it to a wider audience but put it in competition with PIJ. Like PIJ, Green Connections carried ads for permaculture courses. What we had were two magazines with much the same readership in what was a limited market. This was to prove unviable.

Yet, why the national permaculture community of the time counldn’t support two quarterly magazines remains a valid question. It wasn’t that purchasing two journals each with their different content would be a financial hurdle for most. After all, many practitioners would probably have spent more on coffee in a quarter than what they would have sent on two magazines the content of which could only have added to their knowledge of permaculture and sustainability.

Years after the disappearance of PIJ the question still puzzles me. It was the sometimes voiced comment heard at the time that provides the only hint of an answer. That suggested that people wanted only a single source of permaculture information; there was an attitude that more than one publication was more than one too many. Diversity of content and viewpoint didn’t seem to come into this reckoning, though how widespread that was is anybody’s guess. Years later there was a reprise of this attitude when some proposed that a single, authoritative internet portal should exist for permaculture. That, of course, never happened because the internet is everyman’s publishing house and what we have is a growing plethora of permaculture websites and Facebooks, much as you would expect for a movement with a diversity of focus and points of view.

With the end of the PIJ in sight and before going public with the news, Permaculture International made an arrangement with Joy Finch to supply Green Connections to those with outstanding subscriptions to PIJ—PIJ subscribers were to be converted into Green Connection subscribers. Sad it might be that PIJ would disappear after 23 years of continuous publication under a number of different names, at least subscribers and permaculture people would have an alternative journal reporting news of value to them.

That might have been some consolation had it come about. Why it didn’t was because of another unexpected shock. In December 2000, just six months after the final edition of PIJ, Green Connections itself was to fail. Again, falling sales were blamed. The readership of permaculture journals, it seemed, was insufficient to sustain them.

The permaculture network took news of the PIJ’s demise hard, and surprise and anger were openly expressed at the permaculture gathering that year at Djanbung Gardens. That gathering wasn’t really a convergence, more a meeting spanning several days focused on the situation permaculture and PIL now found itself in. PIL, it has already been explained, was set up in the 1980s with the express purpose of publishing PIJ.

It is an unanswered question as to why permaculture practitioners in Australia could not support two quarterly magazines. The collapse of our two permaculture journals raised the question of the level of committment to actually putting personal funds—and here we are talking about very modest funds—behind something worthwhile to make it happen. The idea of financially supporting good ideas had been current in permaculture since its early years and the crowdfunding of the publication of a number of permaculture books by pre-publication sales indicated, at that earlier time at least, that people were prepared to put their money where their ideas were. What had happened within permaculture in the years since such that the willingness to support two magazines was not there? In principle it was not unlike the liquidation of EcoForest Ltd a few years in the future when supposed ‘greens’ failed to support an ecological forestry venture that provided a good example of integrated design that permaculture thinkers would have approved of.

The new reality as of December 2000 was that permaculture was without a voice, without national networking media and, as someone pointed out, permaculture educators were without a means of advertising their courses.

Standing, looking, thinking

Sometimes I would stand and look over our vegetable garden with its pen of scratching chooks in Sydney’s southern bayside suburbs and I would think back to past years when Permaculture Sydney, then in its third iteration, gave birth to Permaculture South, Permaculture Inner West and Permaculture North. Stimulating this thinking was the fading away of the organisation.

Responsibility for keeping Permaculture Sydney going had devolved to a declining number of people such as Jill Finnane and Doug Bailey. Jill had worked with Action for World Development through the ninetees and had completed  the urban permaculture design course with Pacific-Edge, our organisation. She later went on to offer permaculture short courses as well as design courses through Action for World Development. Then, in the new century, Jill would move on to work in social justice and to write the book From Lawns To Lunch. Doug had trained as an anthropologist and had a strong interest in ethnobotany, and had created a food forest in his Marrickville backyard.

Towards its end Permaculture Sydney was clearly becoming a burden. From an association with a calendar of events, workshops and site visits, it was now a shell of its former self. At its height, the association had regularly published the Permaculture Web journal, reporting on permaculture in Sydney and further afield. Now recruitment had faltered and participation in events was in rapid decline. The decision was made to pass Permaculture Sydney on to the UNSW Ecoliving Centre and here it persisted through a few newsletter editions before fading into history.

As I stood there looking over the garden I realised that, just as those vegetables have their seasons, so do community associations. Plants are seeded, go through a growth phase and then go into the cooking pot or are fed to those scratching chooks. Maybe, if they have left viable seed in the soil, they will return in a new form and once again flourish. Similarly with community organisations there seemed to be an analogous cycle of birth, growth, stability and decline. This I had seen before with the previous incarnation of Permaculture Sydney following the same trajectory.

Family demands had reduced our – Fiona’s and myself -participation in Permaculture Sydney and in permaculture in general over the closing years of the Twentieth Century and the start of the new, but we maintained a close interest and contact.

We had been closely involved in permaculture as it developed in Sydney in the 1990s and had brought together a talented and experienced team to teach our urban permaculture design course.

On reviewing our role with the start of the new century, we could see that the decade past had seen us lead a week-long permaculture course for the UNSW students that resulted in the start of the UNSW Community Permaculture Garden. Our design course had led to the start-up of Randwick Community Organic Garden and we had involvement, including as consultant designers, in permaculture in schools projects. Our work with the University of Technology-based international development NGO, APACE (Appropriate Technology for Community and Environment) in food security, village farming systems and rural livelihood creation in the Solmon Islands, plus project management of a metals recycling and small business development project funded by AusAID in Lae, PNG, had been our introduction to international development. There had also been participation in the Action for World Development team producing Getting Started, a book for aspiring international development workers that offered a permaculture take on the field and brought together the collective development experience of permaculture people. There had also been our close involvement in Permaculture Sydney.

A new century was dawning… and it brought with it the idea of new beginnings, new promise. It did bring these things but it also brought chaos.

PIL reborn? Not quite

The permaculture gathering at Djanbung Gardens in September of 2000 was told that the board of directors of Permaculture International Limited, the body set up in the 1980s to publish PIJ after Robyn Francis took over editorship from Terry White, had decided to keep the organisation going despite the closure of PIJ. That would preserve the tax deductable donations vehicle, Permafund.

The PIL member’s meeting at the gathering approved the closure of PIJ while confirming that a major part of the PIL mission should continue to be networking. Consequently, a new website, a print newsletter for members—The Planet—and the setting up of an email discussion list through which the movement could talk amongst itself was planned.

I joined the PIL board of management at the meeting and made these media things my goals for the coming year. On my return to Sydney, my partner Fiona and I set up a PIL  website and had talks about setting up an email discussion space with the UNSW Ecoliving Centre as Permaculture Oceania. The first edition of The Planet was printed, though at the time it was called Off The Planet, a title pushed by a PIL board member and, perhaps tellingly, a Nimbin resident. Witty? Yes. Appropriate? No. At the meeting I accepted the title unhappily—though a small majority of the board voted for it—because it seemed a little too cosmic for the readership and not suitable for an industry journal which some of saw it potentially becoming.

The idea of an authoritative publication serving as a ‘permaculture industry’ journal—different to popular magazines like PIJ and Permaculture Edge—was not one with wide currency. The nearest the design system had come to it was Crystal Waters-based permaculture educator, Robyn Clayfield’s, idea for a newsletter for permaculure educators. This idea, I recall, was inaugrated at a permaculture convergence in the 1990s. A single edition, just a couple pages, was all that eventuated. It would probably have run into the difficulty of sourcing content from a geographically dispersed movement.

In late 2002 or early 2003, the Canadian organisation Permaworld offered PIL a financial lifeline in the form of donated funds derived from their marketing operation. The first tranche, in excess of AU$20,000 was used to hire an office manager whose first task was to make sense of the now dysfunctional membership database that had originally been set up to administer PIJ subscriptions, and to sort and package the large stock of remnant editions of PIJ. Later, Permaworld would withdraw from the arrangement on learning, so the story went, that PIL was not spending the income on projects.

By the end of the first year of the new century PIL was set on a new course although its destination remained somewhat vague.

The years of soul searching

For permaculture in Australia these were years of soul-searching. The loss of PIJ, a decline in public profile and the search for a new mission for Permaculture International Limited were offset by the publication of a new book by David Holmgren and the setting up of approved vocational training courses.

There was also discussion for the first time about intergenerational change in permaculture as those in the movement looked around for a younger cohort to train itself and assume leadership.

The perceived decline in permaculture’s public profile was not a universal phenomenon and where it was experienced probably had much to do with the loss of PIJ and Green Connections. It was more a perception as there were no figures on numbers active in the design system to provide any objective data to refute or support it—as bemoaned earlier, permaculture has suffered a chronic lack of objective data collection with which to assess numbers, influence and trends. The result has been that any estimate to do with general trends in the design system are usually guestimates.

As for the cessation of PIJ, it is not difficult to say how that affected permaculture practitioners. Some pointed out that permaculture educators had lost their main means of promoting their courses, others that the only means on national networking was lost. Both were true. At the bottom of it was the loss of something that had become a permaculture institution and that people had eagerly awaited the arrival of in their mail boxes. More than anything, it was the loss of a sense of connection.

Time to say goodbye

These were years of saying goodbye—goodbye to PIJ, goodbye to Green Connections, goodbye to Permaculture Sydney.

But let’s take a step back several years, because the creation of Permaculture Sydney demonstrates how important the coverage of permaculture in mainstream media has been to the design system’s evolution.

The recreation of Permaculture Sydney, the third iteration of the association, can traced to a television program. It is unknown if it was by chance that Brad Nott and Ian Mason were watching it, but what is known is that after it they were set on a new course.

The program was the edition of The Heartlands series that featured Bill Mollison. Permaculture seemed such a good idea, Brad was to say later, that they had to do something about it. What they did was create a new organisation they called Permaculture Sydney, an association that would last to just a little beyond the end of the decade.

Brad was an even tempered, reflective and thoughtful sort of person and you could see why he had risen to the ranks of middle management in his working life in the information technology industry. I don’t recall seeing him ruffled by anything.

At the time, Brad was working for an international IT corporation headquartered over on the northside. Fortunately, he could borrow one of their Mac computers… it might have been a Classic… one of those all-in-a-square-beige-box models with a little monochrome screen. Sue Doust, a permaculture practitioner around Sydney in the early 1990s and a graphic designer and member of our Pacific-Edge PDC teaching team, taught us to use a program called Pagemaker and on this modest machine we produced Permaculture Sydney’s newsletter. That is how I learned to use a page layout program as a writing tool, only later discovering that there was something called word processing softwear.

Layout done, in the early hours of the morning Brad, Fiona and I would drive over to Brad’s workplace and there print out Permaculture Sydney’s newsletter.

Eventually, it became time for Brad to move on – he wanted a change from IT now that he had sampled permaculture and become aware of other possibilities in the world. He left for Alice Springs to work at an appropriate technology development centre. Later, he would return to Adelaide, his home town, where he worked with NASAA—the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia—in organic farm certification. Layer still he would join Tim Marshall Organics and settle with his family at Aldinga Arts Ecovillage, near Aldinga Beach south of Adelaide.

Ian Mason, Brad’s co-conspirator in setting up Permaculture Sydney, was a landscape architect by training. His too was a quiet personality given to neither excesses of exuberance or depression. Like Brad, Ian was not tall but unlike Brad who wore his dark hair cut short, Ian’s was shoulder length and he was less intense in manner. Just before he left Sydney for South Australia he wrote two small, self-published books on community living. I last encoutered Ian when I was visiting South Australia and found him living in the town of Aldinga and contemplating a move to the nearby ecovillage.

I tell a little of Brad and Ian’s story here as it is all too easy to forget the work in permaculture of people like them. It seems unfortunate that people are forgotten in permaculture. You might be sitting talking with someone you know who has been around the design system for some time and up comes the question: where’s so-and-so now and what are they doing?

From time to time I have wondered why people come into the design system’s milieu, make their mark, then disappear. Where do they go, what makes them move on? These are the questions I ask myself but seldom come up with an adequate answer. The reality is that many of those people in at the inception of permaculture are now nowhere to be seen. They came, they stayed, they went. Only the question as to why remains.

Some simply move on in life, permaculture having been a waypoint. Sometimes you encounter them doing interesting work elsewhere that their permaculture background plays some role in. Sometimes they simply disappear. I understand that some left because of a falling out with others in permaculture, and this is unfortunate. Perhaps it suggests that we should move the design system’s second ethic of peoplecare to first place and make sure we practice it.

Permaculture organisations seem to follow a similar pattern as does the participation of people in permaculture. Even large permaculture formations like Permaculture Sydney, which at its peak numbered members in the three figures, follow the standard curve of rising to popularity after being started by a few innovators, then peaking and going into decline perhaps to reinvent themselves, perhaps not. This follows Rogers ideas diffusion curve, illustrating how the model applies as much to organisations as to ideas and products.

By way of illustrating the rise and decline of permaculture organisations, by the turn of the century that association which arose so early in the history of permaculture, Permaculture Nambour, was long gone. In Sydney, Permaculture Hills to Hawkesbury in the north west of the metropolitan area had ceased as had Permaculture Inner West and Permaculture South. Only Permaculture North persisted as, far to the south, did Permaculture Melbourne. As for another early association in the northern rivers region of NSW, Borderland Permaculture, memory of it had virtually ceased to exist except in the minds of those who had taken the pioneering initiative to start it so early, so long ago in permaculture history. Permaculture Association Western Australia and PASA – Permaculture Association South Australia – were still going and PASA continued to publish its informative newsletter.

Planning the new course

If people felt disappointment at the loss of PIJ, better news was imminent. It was delivered around twelve months  after the year 2000 gathering at Djanbung Gardens.

The gathering that took place in Nimbin in 2001 – again, not a convergence in the common understanding of the term—saw the setting of a new course and new mission for PIL. This, a small gathering like that of the previous year, announced the start of the process of setting up nationally-accredited courses in permaculture design. Rather than further descending the slope of decline, PIL had decided to reinvent itself.

The course would be much longer than the conventional PDC and offer a number of certificates that would be recognised nationally as vocational training. The new course would not replace the PDC which would still be available for general interest students and which participants in the new course would be expected to acquire. The new courses were approved by the national training authority in 2003 as Accredited Permaculture Training.

There had been uncertainty at creating the new course structure, some fearing it would negatively affect the PDC. I think this was due to misunderstanding the intention of those who were then making it happen. As with anything new there was confusion and gut reaction to it and this could be critical. What those who were uncertain were responding to was the realisation that the PDC was not structured such that it could be recognised as workplace training by the educational standards gatekeepers or by other work qualification bodies such as industry associations.

Although the APT courses have been accepted and adopted by accredited trainers, it’s true that not all in permaculture support it.

A future unformed

The first years of the new decade had been a troubled time for permaculture in Australia. The trademark issues (which we will look at soon), a controversy over teaching and the curricula (which we will also look at), the loss of PIJ and, late in 2003, Permaculture International’s loss of Permaworld funding had only been partially offset by the news that the accredited course had become reality.

Those closely involved in developing the new course structure and content were optimistic, however a few thought privately that more than a new course would be needed to revive permaculture. As it turned out, permaculture’s ’revival’ was  to be carried on a resurgence of popular sentiment.

A decade in rear view

Looking back on the decade ten years after it started, the impression is one of destruction and rebirth. It seems that permaculture, having entered the decade in dissarray, recovered to reconfigure itself after 2005 and to move to a new phase as the decade drew to a close.

Somewhere in the decade’s latter years it seemed that a new coterie had made its entrance, a younger group that went some way to answering the question about intergenerational change in permaculture that some of us, who had been around the design system since its early days, had started to ask.

Before that happened, however, permaculture had to endure the trademark and other shocks.

The trademark controversies

For a short time they raged as controversies on the international and Australian permaculture email conversations, the proposal by the Permaculture Institute to trademark its logo. The move was perceived as a major challenge from within to what had become the common practice of making free use of the logo. How the Institute’s move came across was as if a part of the permaculture commons was being privatised.

The first incident occurred when the Permaculture Institute, now again established in Tasmania, announced that its logo was no longer available for general use by the permaculture community. It was being trademarked, the Institute announced. What was known as the logo, said the Institute, was really an illustration produced for the cover of Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual.

That much was true but the announcement took the movement by surprise. There had been no consultation, no discussion, no forewarning — just the sudden imposition of intellectual property rights and the demand that use of the logo cease immediately.

Legalities aside, the illustration was viewed by many as a generic logo for free use and was already used in this way by permaculture organisations and teachers. Never before had the Institute attempted to prevent its use. The new arrangement was that, for the payment of AU$200, the logo could be licensed for a period of two years for use in publications, on T-shirts and for similar purposes. Unauthorised use was illegal and was to cease.

Commentators said that this was against the sharing ethos of permaculture and it was this that lay behind much of the condemnation of the move. Others saw it as an unwanted example of the privatisation of what they had taken to be common property.

The news flowed rapidly through the online networks and condemnation followed quickly. People were angered at the Institute’s unilateral approach but could do little as trademarking gave the Institute legal control over the logo. What was the simple application of intellectual property rights was seen as out of place in a movement whose third ethic was all about sharing. The incident drove a wedge between some of permaculture’s practitioners and the Institute. It was a gap that would widen.

The Institute strikes again

The second challenge from within permaculture’s own ranks came after the business of the logo had just died down. Now, the Institute applied to trademark the terms ‘permaculture course’ and ‘permaculture design’.

The implication were potentially significant. If successful, the Institute would have the legal basis to prevent unauthorised use of the terms and, perhaps, grant use only to those whose permaculture teaching complied with the Institute’s requirements and who were registered teachers with the Institute who paid a licence fee to use the terms.

In comparison, the logo incident was minor. If the Institute was successful it would gain effective control over permaculture as it would legally own the terms by which permaculture training and design services were offered. Trademarking would give the Institute the commercial advantage of being able to licence use of the terms.

In a letter explaining the move to me, the Institute explained that they were seeking the trademarks because they had been mistaken in their belief that permaculture was protected by copyright.

This belief had endured for years, Bill occasionally making public statements about copyright protecting permaculture and how it could be used. But copyright protects only the expression of an idea, not the idea itself or its name, something the Institute later confirmed. Copyright protected Bill’s books as an expression of permaculture, but the idea of permaculture itself and the elements that make it up remain unprotected. Anyone can write about permaculture and it followed that anyone could teach permaculture courses with their own content so long as they did not copy the teaching materials and detailed course structure formulated by the Permaculture Institute or appearing in Bill’s Designers’ Manual.

The response to the Institute was, predictably, hostile. There were a few statements in support but the majority were critical. Speculation about the reason for the Institute’s action generated much discussion online, some putting it down to Bill being influenced by some close to him that it was time to make money from the design system. That speculation was not substantiated.

The controversy drew strong comments from Australia, the USA and Europe, exhibiting a hostility to what some saw as the privatisation of what had been seen as the common goods of the logo and the terms. Online commentary  suggested that there existed within permaculture an unstated, de facto ‘open source’ attitude towards its key concepts, content and representations although at the time that concept had yet to move beyond software development. For some Americans, the incident gave vent to dissatisfaction with Bill Mollison in regard to his then-recent and controversial visit to that country to teach, during which a number of American permaculturists had fallen into disagreement.

Opinion was that the trademark application would be unsuccessful as the terms were in common use. In 2003, the applications were allowed to lapse.

The outcome of the logo and trademarking issues was a loss of prestige by the Permaculture Institute. Afterwards, the Institute seemed to diminish in its role in the movement, though this might have been merely a continuation of the declining role that it had played since the mid-90s.

The Institute, permaculture’s first and key organisation, had been formed early in its history and played a guiding role during the design system’s earlier years. Permaculture International, with its PIJ pubishing role, increasing participation in permaculture the role of the Permaculture Research Institute and the emergence of strong regional permaculture groups had reduced the need for the services the Institute had earlier provided. In recent years it has been the permaculture teacher’s register and the reputation of the Institute as a pioneering organisation that has maintained its presence. But, just as a candle’s light becomes dimmer with distance, so had the Institute’s guiding light dimmed as distance from permaculture’s early years has increased.

It is in an online conversation in November 2011 that the trademarking episode again surfaces, not as an issue but as a historic footnote. This occurred when a veteran US permaculture designer and educator wrote in an email to me that he attempted to trademark the term ‘permaculture’ because that hadn’t been done by Bill Mollison, only to discover that a Florida landscape architect had trademarked it in the early 1980s but had let it go. He said that his attempt had failed because the term was in common use and therefore was unavailable as a trademark.

He went on to say that he was aware that Bill mistakenly misunderstood that the term ‘permaculture’ was protected by copyright law and that when he raised this at the 2011 international permaculture convergence in Jordan, the Permaculture Research Institute’s Geoff Lawton had asserted that Bill does in fact hold the copyright for the term in Australia. Confusion over copyright, trademarks and patents seemingly remains prevalent in permaculture circles.

A conspicuous silence

With the exception of a single communication outlining its motives, the Institute remained silent all through the trademark controversy. No one representing the Institute participated in the online discussions.

There are two ways to think about this silence.

The first is that an organisation in the position of the Institute risks alienating people by participating in a controversial discourse around permaculture, especially if it assumes a partisan rather than a mediator stance on issues. Silence, in this situation, is understandable.

The other way to think about the Institute’s silence is to see it as regrettable and aloof. Refusal to participate in the conversation among practitioners denies participants the benefits of the Institute’s knowledge and wisdom. It is also a failure to shed light, to clarify facts and intentions around controversial issues such as the trademark attempts. In this respect, the policy of silence contributes to ignorance and misapprehension and opens the controversy to rumour and assumption.

There are two additional realities. One is the reality that communication is expected in an age of digital media, and not to communicate is to reduce your visibility, even your relevance. Even big business corporations know the value of communicating. The second is that, in an age of social media when all interested can put their opinions online, organisations no longer effectively control public perceptions of themselves or of their reputation. They become whatever people say they are and to decline the opportunity to communicate is to leave the field open to your detractors.

Critics might say that to deliberately absent oneself from the dialogue around the design system is to treat the permaculture milieu with contempt. In a world in which online communication plays so important a role, to be silent is to become invisible. To become invisible is to become irrelevant.

Controlling education

Behind the trademark application was the potential for the Permaculture Institute to exert greater control over permaculture education. It’s probable that the issue fed into a further online conversation around what makes a valid Permaculture Design Course.

The practice among permaculture teachers had been to offer PDC’s that included the same general content, much of which was covered in Bill Mollison’s Designer’s Manual and his Introduction to Permaculture. Instead of Bill’s books, some made use of Blue Mountain Permaculture teacher, Rosemary Morrow’s Earth Users Guide to Permaculture (1993, Kangaroo Press, Sydney; new edition 2006).

Unless they were locked into the Permaculture Institute’s teachers’ register, educators would add their own content or, on occasion, omit parts of Bill’s material that they considered less relevant. The Institute allowed registered teachers to add material but not to drop any that appeared in the Designers’ Manual which was to be taken as textbook and its chapter sequence as lesson sequence.

For teachers devising their own course structure, there was no legal imperative to include all of Bill’s  material, its use had simply become a default practice because of Bill’s formative work in the development of the design system, his intellectual and moral authority and the historic role of the Permaculture Institute in the development of the design system.

When the Institute set up a register of approved teachers, permaculture educators were unexpectedly faced with change. The Institute in earlier years had maintained a register but later it seemed to have lapsed. At the conclusion of a Permaculture Design Course educators would forward to the Institute the names of those graduating, the idea being that those seeking permaculture training could be put in touch with local people qualified to teach and could verify that the teacher was qualified. The catch now was that the teachers would have to cover the content of the Designer’s Manual in full. To ensure they complied, the Institute vetted teaching curricula.

This threatened teachers who had adapted the PDC to their needs — they would not be approved if they did not include all the subjects in the Designer’s Manual. The move prevented the opportunity to develop PDCs adapted to specific circumstances such as urban environments and developing countries. For the Institute, it seemed that permaculture curricula was to be a case of one-size-fits-all, but for some it was one-size-fits-few.

The tradition had been that permaculture teachers purchased copies of the permaculture certificate from the Institute to issue to graduating students. Now, faced with the Institute’s substantially revised charges and the issuing of certificates only to approved teachers, more educators decided to do what some already did and issue their own certificates.

Some permaculturists supported the Institute, however the issues over the permaculture logo, the trademark applications and the previously unannounced arrangement for teachers was to force something of a schism in the movement, a divide between teachers, designers and the Permaculture Institute. Just as the Institute had isolated itself geographically in the hilly backblocks of Tasmania, so it had isolated itself operationally from many of permaculture’s practitioners. This was a division largely hidden from the public and also from those on permaculture’s periphery.

It is likely that the majority of teachers chose to follow the dictate of the Institute when it came to design course structure and content. It’s reasonable to assume that this was because of the historic role of the Institute and because there was no similar body with the perceived authority that clung to it. The Institute saw their requirements as protecting the standards of what was taught as permaculture. Others wanted a more adaptable approach to permaculture education and saw the Institute’s attitude as conservative and at risk of ossifying permaculture education and preventing its adaptation to changing social and environmental conditions.

The Institute continues to exist, occasionally offering design courses. But what was once the international leadership of a diverse and far-flung movement now has little to say to many permaculturists. Respect for Bill remains high — as it had through the controversies — and longer-serving permaculture teachers and activists regard him with affection. At the time, though, the effect of the Institute’s actions alienated many.

Registration ends

In 2010 came another unexpected announcement from the Institute. The Permaculture teachers’ register was to close.

Again an announcement from the Institute that surprised many. Suddenly, those educators who had made use of the Institute’s teacher registration system had apparently been abandoned. The announcement claimed that the work of maintaining the register was too much and the financial rewards too little.

The announcement had gone out to those registered with the Institute but soon it started to flow through permaculture’s online networks. The Institute made no announcement on the Permaculture Oceania email discussion list despite the potential interest of those that populated it.

At the time there was no organisation that volunteered to take on registrations, however in 2011 the Permaculture Research Institute announced it was restarting the register.

Challenge and survival

Skimming back over this chapter I get the impression I have focused more on the challenges that permaculture faced than those things that went well. If this is so then it’s because the challenges and how they are met say something about the resilience of the whole system.

There were many positive developments that the decade brought… many new people adopted permaculture, the Transition Town movement made a start, the Permablitz brought people together in the cities, the community garden movement gave birth to numerous new gardens and in doing so expanded community-based urban agriculture, councils adopted policy to enable community gardening and other ventures, food became a political issue in its own right, food advocacy organisations formed in the states, a new CSA (community supported agriculture) – Food Connect – started then expanded its operations, new permaculture education providers appeared, the Accredited Permaculture Training talked about since the ninetees became a reality and started to offer new options for those more serious about their permaculture ambitions… and all the rest of the good things that don’t come to mind as I write.


For Fiona and I, the decade was one of getting back into permaculture after our family obligations came to an end. We attended the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network conference in freezing Bendigo in the first part of the decade to discover that new people, many influenced by permaculture, had appeared. Fiona started work with Randwick City Council as their first sustainability educator and would go on to develop the Randwick Sustainability Hub with its energy and water efficient community centre retrofit and the Permaculture Interpretive Garden, a combination garden education facility and public park and a new model of urban placemaking. I focused mainly on my work as media liaison for the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, started making presentations on community gardening and urban food security at seminars and conferences and later worked with the City of Sydney council in a role incorporating community garden development, urban Landcare revegetation and support for community food systems.
Looked at in its challenges and triumphs, the first decade of the new century was a successful one for permaculture.

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