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THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 5: prelude to a new century


Before we look at the opening years of the new century it might be instructive to step back to the closing years of the old.

It was then that a event at a permaculture convergence  provided a timely glimpse at how people perceived the design system, what it was and where it was headed.

Assessing the need for change

Maria McGuire is a middle aged woman who has retained her German accent despite years of life in Australia. She doesn’t have a dominating presence but one that might be described as attention-getting. In Sydney, Maria and American born husband Richard run Unfolding Futures, a  facilitation and people-skills training business. They were regular trainers in the Pacific-Edge Urban Permaculture Design Course through the 1990, providing two full days of creative facilitation training.

That day in the warm months of 1997—it was September—Maria stood on the stage in the shade of the big marquis. We were in Nimbin, where the Convergence was underway at Robyn Francis’ Djanbung Gardens premises. There, she and Fiona Campbell were about to take more than one hundred people on a tour of where Permaculture had been and what it had achieved over its part 20 years. This was crowdsourcing well before digital culture invented the term. It was the start of a session that would paint a picture of Permaculture 20 years on. It was also one of the few occasions that Permaculture had indilged in a little navel gazing, an informal and all too brief evaluation of where it had been and what it had done.

First, the past

Fiona took to the stage and explained the purpose and method that we would employ in our exploration. She introduced Maria, who then got proceedings started.

First, it was time to explore the past. What had been the critical influences on the development of Permaculture in its early years, she asked. From the audience, the answers came quickly:

  • Mollison’s first talk on Permaculture at the Cotter Down To Earth Festival in the 1970s
  • the ideas of Buckminister Fuller
  • Mollison’s Tagari Community in Tasmania
  • the alternative movement of the 1960s and 1970s
  • David Holmgren’s thesis at the College of Advanced Education, Hobart
  • books — Robert Hart’s Forest Farming, Limits To Growth, Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful
  • the formation of a national Permaculture network
  • the first photographs of Earth from space
  • the energy efficient Village Homes development in California
  • the past decade of globalisation of Permaculture
  • the teaching of Permaculture
  • the ideas of Abraham Maslow (the hierarchy of human needs).

Not mentioned were:

  • the development of ecology as a science that brought insights into the interrelationship of elements in the environment
  • the science known as ‘complexity theory’ or ‘systems theory’ with its notion of ’emergent systems’ arising spontaneously from complex, interrelating components.

The view from 2010

Looking at this list from 2010, I find it instructive because it suggests the substantial influence of ideas and books from the 1970s that may well now be largely lost on people newer to Permaculture.

Names like Robert Hart, Buckminster Fuller and Fritz Schumacher may still be familiar to those who lived all those decades ago on the constructive, creative appropriate technology edge of the alternative movement of that decade but, I wonder, what currency do they now have within the Permaculture milieu?

And that comment about the first view of the earth as a planet from space. Everyday stuff now, But then? Revolutionary. The first time the Earth had been so seen in the entirety of human history. In showing the blue planet in the immensity of space’s blackness,  the view reinforced an emerging environmental consciousness. It reminded me of that day in 1969 when all staff where I was working were summoned to the cafetaria to watch something equally unique and equally unprecedented in human history — the first moon landing when Arstrong made that famous footprint on the dusty surface.

Next, the key developments

Next up for the gathering was identified the key developments in Permaculture in the 1990s.

The results:

  • ecovillages
  • international Permaculture convergences
  • the spread of the design system
  • ethical investment
  • urban agriculture
  • Permaculture in schools
  • Permaculture education.

It was a list of the main areas that had opened to Permaculture during the decade but missing was the role of Permaculture as an approach to international development in developing countries.

The five gifts

The following session asked for five key gifts of Permaculture, however the crowd would not settle for so few. They insisted on naming a great deal more than five:

  • bringing food production back to the cities
  • synergy
  • self-empowerment
  • holistic systems
  • reconnecting with natural systems
  • rediscovering and reaffirming traditional ways
  • the interrelationship of all things
  • models of food self-reliance
  • influence on mainstream society
  • diversity
  • a focus on solutions rather than problems
  • reconnecting
  • community, commonality, common sense.


So far so good. influences and achievements noted, the gathering moved on to the future.

“What are the key challenges facing Permaculture?”, Maria asked.

The answers reflect the concerns of the key activists in the movement at the time:

  • the fear of acknowledging mistakes
  • social values
  • the availability of information for non-literate people
  • penetration of Permaculture into urban areas
  • finding enough people to help
  • nurturing the Permaculture community
  • making Permaculture relevant to youth
  • leading by example
  • developing local solutions to globalisation
  • ‘walking our talk’
  • the development of Permaculture projects, especially systems that last
  • funding ourselves
  • preserving and increasing biodiversity
  • apathy
  • affluence
  • artificial and easy food
  • developing networks to help ourselves
  • making inroads into local government
  • the social psychology of competition rather than cooperation
  • making livings in Permaculture (‘right livelihood’).

The future from 1997

The final session asked: what are the most important things for Permaculture to deliver?

The responses:

  • creation of vibrant communities
  • trusting ourselves and trusting nature to provide
  • developing projects and programmes to implement the analyses developed in this process (the process led by Maria)
  • wisdom
  • reforesting the earth
  • practical hope
  • joyful fertility
  • harmony with life
  • freedom
  • empowering youth to act in deprived areas
  • respect
  • celebration of diversity
  • cooperation with nature
  • abundance
  • creation of a planet reflecting a holistic state of being.

Idealism and realism

Traditionally, permaculture convergences have been venues for idealism rather than realism. Permaculture has been characterised by the vision of the ideal on the one hand and by the reality of what can be achieved on the other. Maria McGuire’s session disclosed the coexistence of both tendencies.

Permaculture had never lacked people who thought big. The proposal to ‘reforest the Earth’, for instance, is an ideal well beyond the capacity of Permaculture itself but is something to which it could contribute. Other ideas for the future identified in Maria’s session might have been a bit wooly in the sense that they were good ideas but were vague or open to interpretation. Achieving them would be a challenge. Some were motherhood statements, ideas that virtually no one could disagree with.

A significant number of participants called for attitudinal change. Only a few of the ideas could be acted on with a project-based approach—the creation of vibrant communities and analysing the outcomes of the programme that Maria led, for instance.

The segment of Permaculture’s ‘Five Gifts’ showed that permaculturists were an optimistic bunch. Notions that the gifts include “holistic systems”, “reconnecting with natural systems” and “the interrelationship of all things” disclosed the wholistic ideology that has permeated Permaculture ever since Bill and David put their ideas on paper. In those days, viewing the world as an interacting whole rather than a collection of parts was a novel idea. Only in recent years has science given it respectability through disciplines such as ecology, systems dynamics, complexity theory and the science of networks.

Accepting the challenges

The segment on challenges was revealing because it brought to the surface the things that participants saw as potential, but not necessarily insurmountable, blockages to the dispersal of permaculture into mainstream society.

A few, such as “penetration of permaculture into urban areas”, might not be such a great challenge because from the start of the design system there has been a substantial interest in permaculture in the big cities.

“Finding enough people to help” and “making permaculture relevant to youth” are related because satisfying the first will ultimately depend on addressing the second. It is here, perhaps, that the design system faces its greatest challenge. Young people are being attracted to permaculture but the question is whether their numbers are great enough to perpetuate the system. This is about intergenerational hand-over and reinterpreting the design system in such a way that it is more meaningful to youth.

“Leading by example” and “walking our talk” are about much the same thing — translating ideals into action. Permaculturists, as they have demonstrated time after time, are not all that different to the rest of the populace, so it is no surprise that one major area in which there is a shortfall in leading by example is in implementing the second ethic of permaculture, care of people. Implementing this ethic is primarily about how we treat others. Most of us have been derelict in this at some time and perhaps one practical approach is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”, to quote Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.

“The development of permaculture projects, especially systems that last” is a challenge that would best be met by including a sizeable segment on project management in permaculture education and by improving the group skills of permaculturists. Sustainability, handing over and training, all components of ‘systems that last’, are first considered at the stage of project design. They are important because they influence the performance and even the continuity of the work. The conventional wisdom of project management has a place in Permaculture training.

Project sustainability is addressed by asking how clients can best manage their designs. The question is about training and management regimes that are easy to follow. Unfortunately, the lack of a journal or forum in Permaculture where such ‘insider’ questions can be discussed means that they remain largely unresolved.

“Developing networks to help ourselves” is a challenge because, unlike other fields, permaculture has not developed a medium in which solutions can be discussed, issues within the practice talked over and resolved and social trends addressed.

“Making inroads into local government” is an idea with potential. The model could be that pioneered by the bush regeneration movement that brings together local government staff and community-based volunteers. It attracts grant funding and creates work in local government.

Progressive local government now employs university-educated staff to implement projects in areas that have been the province of Permaculture. Waste management, energy efficient building, water conservation, stormwater management, community development and community garden liaison are just some areas that Permaculture could have played a larger role within local government had it been targeted as a venue for action. In forming constructive alliances with local government, the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, which includes permaculture people, has demonstrated the possibilities in this area as has the community-based organisation, Cultivating Community, with the state government in Melbourne.

The difference to Transition Towns

It is here that there is a difference between permaculture and the newer Transition Towns movement.
Transition Towns deliberately targets local government with its Energy Descent Action Plan.

Permaculture has not collectively decided upon a similar institutional target for its works. It appears a more amorphous formation made up of groups focused on local action in the community and, except in comparatively rare cases, not moving beyond the community milieu. This can be partially explained by Permaculture relying on individual or community association initiative rather than it taking the path of advocacy, which calls for a higher level of organisation and collaboration.

Pehaps this clearer focus goes a little way to explaining the attraction of Transition Towns to many in permaculture… to those who want a more focused movement with a clear line of action aimed at an identifiable institution. This in far from all, of course, and many—probably most—are satisfied with permaculture doing what it currently does. But there remains a core of people who would like permaculture to be more prominent in civic affairs and who know that, if the movement remains as an application at the household/voluntary community level, this is unlikely to eventuate.

Informal poll confirms findings

When I conducted an informal poll at the 1997 Australasian Permaculture Convergence I found an awareness that change was needed. But as to the type of change, few respondents were specific.

Some I spoke with had been in the movement for years and even they mentioned the need to mainstream permaculture. Mainstreaming has been a continuing call through the 1990s. The point is that, like much coming out of Maria McGuire’s session, the concept means different things to different people. Some already work within mainstream institutions. Others seek a more general acceptance of Permaculture by the public. The call is linked to another oft-heard allegation that Permaculture retains a ‘hippy’ image that has worked against its move into the mainstream. This is seldom heard today but it was a long time in disappearing. It is a reference to the fundamental influence of 1970 alternative culture — the creative, innovative end of it—on the formation of Permaculture. Denying this by labeling it ‘hippy’ is to deny where many of permaculture’s good ideas come from. Permaculture, like any social movement, is a product of its times and environment.

As mentioned earlier, at the time of the 1997 convergence it could be argued that permaculture has not made the leap from the early adopter phase into early mass adoption, and it is this that lay behind the call for mainstreaming. People were tired of believing that they lived on the social fringe.

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