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PacificEdge | November 18, 2017

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THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 7: Into the new century

PASS THROUGH BURNIE, the largest city hereabouts and one that snuggles against the chilly waters of Bass Strait. Drive past—don’t turn off – at the junction of the Murchison Highway that takes the traveler over undulations of steep hills and valleys of dark, dank and moist temperate rainforest, and you end up at Queenstown, on Tasmania’s rugged and weather blasted west coast. Go through the town of Wynyard and ignore the turnoff to Boat Harbour Beach. Keep going… further westward. Soon you come to Sisters Creek, a seemingly minor locality along the Bass Highway.

Sometimes, people return to where they started and here they are revitalised. That was the experience of the Permaculture Institute because, in the closing years of the Twentieth Century, the Institute made the journey home… home to the island state that had given birth to it around 30 years earlier — Tasmania.

That journey home started with its leaving the hilly, humid subtropics below the Tweed Range not all that far from the town of Tyalgum. It was to this place that people from Australia and beyond had made their way to visit, to see the Commonworks, to do a design course at the Permaculture Research Institute, to see what was going on… too see, touch and smell permaculture.

It was from here that the message got out that something new was in creation. News of that was carried in the pages of Permaculture International Journal and by word of mouth to places quite distant.

For permaculture, those were exciting times but they were not to last. Eventually, the rural property was put on the market and Bill Mollison and wife Lisa packed and left. A new life awaited, a life not all that far from Bill’s birthplace.

Back on the Bass Highway, journey a mere 40km or so further to the west of Sisters Creek to where the highway leaves the coast to swing south-westward, inland towards Smithton. Close to where it makes this turn a side road known somewhat optimistically as the Stanley Highway traverses for a mere seven or eight kilometres a narrow neck of farmland squeezed between tidal flats to take you towards a prominent flat-topped bluff that juts into the sea and that rises high above it. This is The Nut, and nestling at the base of The Nut is the one-time fishing town of Stanley. It’s picturesque country… farm and coast… and it is also the birthplace of Bill Mollison.

Here, at Sisters Creek, the Institute has carried on its work, offering courses, taking on interns and — until mid-2010 — administering its long-running register of approved permaculture teachers. From here, Bill has made the annual journey across Bass Strait to join Geoff Lawton to offer periodic Permaculture Design Courses at a Melbourne university.

Thus has journeyed from place to place and from time to time one of permaculture’s major institutions.

The shape of Permaculture

When I returned to The Permaculture Papers in 2005, permaculture had been with us for 28 years. Now, as I return to the Papers in late-2011, it’s been with us for 33 years. That’s quite a length of time to look back over a social movement, and doing so makes me very conscious of what is missing from this story — all of that permaculture experience from elsewhere in the country during the times I write about. That, however, is usual for stories told from one person’s experience. Those other stories await someone else to write about them.

The view from 2005

If we are to comprehend the structure of the permaculture design system, what would it have looked like in late-2005 when I revisited the Permaculture Papers?

As with anything that is made up of the activities of local, autonomous organisations, permaculture must have looked very different in different places. By this time, by 2005, permaculture groups had risen and faded and so had permaculture educators and the Permaculture International Journal, the Permaculture Edge and Green Connections, all print magazines with permaculture at their core. New permaculture associations had arisen in some cities, those earlier established continued in others and a number had disappeared. A vital community gardening movement was then growing and making its way into local government and mainstream acceptance. In this, there was a permaculture presence but many of its initiatives came from people outside of the design system. Permaculture had been a latecomer to community gardening.

No big organisations

What we might also see in 2005 was a diversity of permaculture individuals, community associations, teachers and a few small permaculture businesses scattered over the Australian landscape. What we would not see were any big structures dominating the scene.

Permaculture has foresaken the big organisational structure that dominates the environment movement, the state and national advocacy orgnisations that gained the ear of government and reached their peak of influence in the 1990s. Instead, permaculture had evolved as a decentralised network. That this happened was in large part due to the type of people attracted to permaculture and their preference for local activity rather than direction from a central office.

The nearest permaculture had come to representative organisations was the Permaculture Institute and Permaculture International Ltd, organisations set up with compatible but very different missions neither of which included establishing a coordinated, mass movement or representing the design system nationally.

A structure of small, linked networks

A network consists of the individuals and organisations that make it up — the nodes — and these are linked by flows of information and ideas more than by the exchange of goods and services.

Seen as a network, it was, and still is, the individuals, community associations, the teachers and the still small number of permaculture small businesses that compose the permaculture design milieu in Australia.

These are self-actualising nodes of which some are active and influential, others less prominent or inactive. Flows of information are integral to networks and, in permaculture, they were once provided through the pages of the Permacutlure International Journal and permaculture convergences, the semi-annual gatherings of permaculture people. By the late 1990s it was the Permaculture-Oceania email list and permaculture websites that carried those flows of information. Permaculture could by then be envisioned as a matrix of scattered nodes linked one to another by two-way flows of information.

Within this network, nodes cluster around particular applications of the design system and communicate among themselves as well as with the broader body of permaculturists. These loose clusters were informal and largely unstructured and include those around teaching, overseas development assistance and garden agriculture and farming.

In contemporary time we see a large cluster of permaculture links and allegience to the Permaculture Research Institute, located among the green hills of  northern NSW not all that far from The Channon and Robyn Francis’ Djanbung Gardens-based Permaculture College Australia. The Research Institute has been increasing its global presence in the same way international businesses do, by starting branches in different countries. Now a leading voice in permaculture and having assumed some of the roles of the Permaculture Institute in Tasmania and having set up a substantial online facility with forums and advertising for permaculture courses, the Research Institute has become something of a transnational organisation and a network hub.

Permaculture International’s worldwide web presence lay largely dormant for some time as the organisation reconfigured after the closure of PIJ and the start of Accredited Permaculture Training. Members and the board of directors didn’t have the time to expend more energy on the organisation. Then, in 2011 a new online presence was established that should go a long way to reviving the PIL as Permaculture Australia. All through this time, the Permaculture Oceania email networking facility, now absorbed into PILs new online presence as the Permaculture Australia email facility, maintained a key role for the organisation as another major hub in the national permaculture network.

The newest organisational hub to enter the national permaculture online milieu is the Milkwood Permaculture Network. In addition to these organisational hubs there are those of individual commentators in permaculture, most of which are not linked to business strategies.

Time to centralise… or not?

Now and again had come the suggestion that permaculture adopt a centralist structure, but by 2005 this had not attracted support because of the resistance to centralisation within the system. Such suggestions are usually made in the context of permaculture playing a more prominent role in current issues and how to do this has been an ongoing conversation in permaculture. Why, people have asked time and again, does the design systems not play a more prominent role with social and institutional decision makers?

There may be clues in the structure of permaculture as a national cluster of entities. Permaculture Australia (Permaculture International up to late 2011), the Permaculture Research Institute and, to a lesser degree thanks largely to a low online profile, the Permaculture Institute can be seen as ‘big’ network hubs or major nodes within this permaculture matrix. Each have their own networks and they are linked by individuals, connectors, who are not necessarily members but who play a prominent role in the online conversation around permaculture.

Permaculture in Australia, today, consists of diverse local activities under the banner of permaculture or within the context of other structures that are linked by the flow of information carried in local newsletters, on permaculture websites, social networks and email discussion lists. The practice of permaculture remains based on local initiative. Seen this way, it becomes clear that it is the design system’s diversity and gographic distribution that works against it attaining an influential role among institutional decision makers.

Counting heads is important to wielding influence because the perception of numerical support is seen by decision makers, especially politicians, as reptesenting bodies of opinion. When counting permaculture numbers it is important to include in addition to the memberships of pemaculture associations those permaculture educated and affiliated individuals working alone or within other organisations as they may well add up to a sizable number of practitioners. This is a guestimate, of course, as there exists no count of active permaculturists and no estimate of the total number who are members of permaculture associations. It has always been this way.

It is clear that the majority of introductory course and PDC graduates are not members of associations given the number who have done those courses, though, again, there is no estimate of this number. If they are not active in other organisations or are practicing permaculture alone or wirh friends, then the conclusion must be that most course graduates do nothing with what they learn or do not take their learning beyond the household.

This question of numbers came up again in late 2011 when a prominent permaculture practitioner was asked for an estimate of the number who had completed the design course. His estimate I thought was a little too many and his method of guestimating it I remain uncertain of but in the absense of hard data what else could he do? What it did show, however, is that permaculture really has little idea of how many have done deign courses, what they have done with what they learned and how permaculture ideas have influenced their thinking.

Whatever the number, it is a total that will have to be counted if permaculture is to go into advocacy, as those advocated to will want some idea of the numbers an advocate represents because that total will be seen as a criteria for credibility.

Why reconfigure?

When I did some rewriting of The Permaculture Papers in 2005, I thought that the design system was ready for a restructure and refocusing.

My reasons for this was that I saw permaculture at that time in these terms:

  • the need to attract new people and a new leadership
  • the attrition of long-serving permaculture practitioners
  • the perception that permaculture is addressing the problems of the past, not the present.

I suggested that, after 26 years, it would be time for any entity — community association, corporation or whatever — to assess its past and make the changes that would lead it into the future, changes that are relavant to contemporary social, economic and environmental circumstances. Corporations and small business does this otherwise they go out of business. When community associations don’t reassess and reconfigure they lose support and wither away. Monitoring and evaluation, rather than being a time-waster, is a valuable learning tool that can stimulate a change of course to cope successfully with new challenges and new circumstances.

The food news is that since the time that I wrote there has been an influx of new people that, going on observation plus gut feeling, has increased numbers. That’s the impression I get, anyway.

There is still discussion, however, as to whether permaculture addresses the pressing problems of the day. It has domestic-scale solutions to energy, water, food and waste and there have been attempts to scale that up, but the main running on these and other issues has shifted to specialist organisations rather than remain with a generalist like permaculture.

The effect this will have on permaculture is unknown. Will the promotion of domestic solutions by new community organisations, by big environmental advocates like the Australian Conservation Foundation with their Green Homes snd similar programs, by the Transition Towns movement and by local government weaken permaculture? After all, what they teach is what permaculture courses and literature has traditional taught. And some of them teach it in a way that uses more up to date, behavioural change-based educational methods than the lecture style of teaching that remains all-too-common in permaculture and that has changed little over the past 33 years. Will permculture be able to articulate some point of difference so as to continue to be percived as offering something different to these other, non-permaculture entities now also offering community education?

What role for APT?

Writing in 2005, I suggested that the future of the design system may be in part determined by the Accredited Permaculture Training (APT), as those promoting and providing the training have asserted.

As of 2011 this is yet come to pass even though valuable work is being done with APT. It seems that it will take much longer than I anticipated for the workplace training to turn out a sufficient number of graduates and for the demand for the qualification to appear among employers. It’s less recruiting students than finding a niche in the workplace that is the big factor in this.

APT has yet to find a place in the pantheon of workplace qualifications. It has some work to do before it becomes legitamised in professional eyes, though there are increasing signs of progress in fhe acxeptanxe of permaculture generally, such as Randwick City Council stipulating possession of a PDC for applicants applying to become preferred suppliers for architectural and landscape design services and education, and its ready acceptance that Council should include a PIG—the Permaculture Interpretive Garden—as a trainng facility in its retrofitting of one of its community centres.

This was designed and constructed by a small business—Sydney Organic Gardens, a landscape company led by Permaculture Design Course graduate and landscape architect, Steve Batley. Its design followed consultation with local people and with the local permaculture association, Permaculture Sydney East, which was project manager, Fiona Campbell, invited to participate in the design process as a means of skilling them up and to familiarise them with working with a local government and professional designer.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this slow progress in moving into the professional workplace is the legacy of permaculture as a community-based activity. While there has been exemplary work done, there has been much that has been poorly-executed and finished, reinforcing the perception of permaculture as an ‘amateur’ practice in the eyes of professionals. I have come across this attitude on a number of occasions, and it was instructive to hear someone at the July 2010 public consultation for the Sydney City Farm say that permaculture makes “untidy gardens”. Old perceptions persist and become barriers. There has also been a lack of professional workplace practice in permaculture projects in public places, such as starting construction without making site safety assessments and briefings, and not considering the environmental effects of design such as water systems.

New approaches

The 2005/6 iteration of The Permaculture Papers made suggestions for improving the content and practice of permaculture and some of these remain relevant. I turn to them below…

Adopt a community development approach

The work of people like Robina McCurdy, the experience of permaculturists in community gardening in urban areas, the development of ecovillages and the use of permaculture in overseas development assistance demonstrate that permaculture may best be thought of as an innovative and practical approach to community development. This distances it from its popular reputation as a type of organic gardening but it suggests the need for a more sophisticated approach and for new skills.

Permaculture’s early focus was on horticulture and landscape design, particularly the design of edible landscapes and farming systems. But people require more than food; they need opportunities for social interaction, learning and conviviality. Consequently, there is a need for the development of interactive people skills in permaculture education. It was encouraging to see in 2011 a number of permaculture-affiliated people, and one from an eastern suburbs Transition Towns team, at meetings of the Sydney Facilitators’ Network. Skills introduced there are what is needed in permaculture where it works with the public.

Such skills have been taught but many of them are not well suited to mainstream urban audiences from outside the permaculture or Transition Towns movement. Some are quite confrontational, others quasi-spiritual or amorphous in approach. This is of course a personal viewpoint amd I am quite aware that people techniques such as I describe above are quite acceptable to many. The demographics I have worked with are often more used to participatory and consultative techniques they have come across in their workplaces and these are more left-brained than some used by some community sector permacylture/Transition Town milieu. What is clear is that permaculture practitioners working with groups need a grab bag of different approaches to select the most appropriate for the participants from.

A community development approach would take permaculture practice further towards its definition as a design system for sustainable human settlement. Such an approach would link:

  • the personal—food, nutritional and health, personal development to improve both domestic and working life, access to affordable shelter
  • social development—cooperation with neighbours and communities of interest; improving neighbourhood amenity and environmental conditions, the design of places that encourage conviviality.

Permaculture as an approach to community development would promote elements such as participatory and democratic governance, development of livelihoods, encouragement of personal development and improvements to natural systems. This has to be balanced against the capacity of voluntary groups to participate in this scale of work.

Improve permaculture education and maintain a two-tier structure

A number of permaculture teachers have adapted their PDC course content to suit local conditions. The first major training initiative to depart the PDC format was made in the late-1990s by New Zealander, Robina McCurdy.

For her year-long Planet Organic course in Aotearoa New Zealand, Robina developed a curricula that included permaculture design. The course was the first that attempted to supply graduates with employment-related skills and was a positive development that offered the first systematic, alternative learning structure in permaculture.

Robina, with UK permaculturist Joanna Tebbitt, had earlier started to apply Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)—more often known as Participatory Learning and Action—to permaculture design. PRA is a technique widely used by international development professionals. Had the process developed further, permaculture could have acquired a useful, template-based assessment and planning tool at the time, but that had to await Robina’s manual that she launched at APTC9 in Sydney in 2009—Grounding Vision-Empowering Culture (2008, McCurdy R;Institute of Earthcare Education; Aotearoa).

The development of accredited permaculture education in 2004 took permaculture into the fold of the national training system to offer credibility to the design system and, potentially, an income stream to trainers. Its long term impact on the design system remains speculative but potentially promising, as dscussed above.

Those seeking accreditation with Permaculture International, the owner of the accredited training, must hold a PDC, thus entrenching the PDC within permaculture’s formal workplace training. The cost of teaching the accredited course — teachers must complete the PIL preperatory training and teach at an approved premises, encourages going into teaching as a small business and although this might be a barrier to some it self-selects participants who are entrepreneurial.

The few who have questioned the accredited course structure cite the cost of setting up to teach and the unknown size of the market for the training as inhibiting factors. If there is a lot of interest in the courses then a period of growth is likely, however permaculturists know that there are limits to growth; there could be a lot of initial interest in courses but it is the level at which the market plateaus out that will determine the financial viability of teaching and whether it is worth the investment of setting up as a teacher. Because of the lack of data on permaculture in general and permaculture education in particular it is not possible to make any sort of authoritative guess at this, however a guestimate suggests that there is opportunity for only a small number of accredited course trainers.

The workplace demand for people with accredited course skills — the availability of jobs for graduates, limits the viability of the market for APT. People will ask when considering a course, ‘where are the jobs?’, just as this has been asked by a small number of PDC students in the past. Perhaps students will add the accredited course to another skill as Bill Mollison originally envisioned in regard to the PDC.

This would be a good idea as particular qualifications are preferred, even required, for particular working roles. The PDC provides insufficient skills to become a recognised employment qualification by itself even though some educators have portrayed it as such. It is more of an intensive course for community activity.

Where would APT graduates find employment? As local government sustainability educators, waste education and the like, it has been suggested. This may come about although it needs be remembered that most of those occupying these roles are graduates of university environmental science or environmental management courses and that this has set a precedent in the type of qualifications asked for. APT would have to prove its adequacy for these roles.

It has also been suggested that livelihood opportunities might open up in community gardening. It is hard to see how this would happen. Community gardening is largely a self-funded, voluntary activity and gardens generally do not have funds to pay for training, most training being through peer-to-peer means and informal workshops. Local government does in some cases hire trainers to skill-up community gardeners, however those doing this work mix it with other educational or other types of work due to the small scale of the market.

To take the role I have at the time of writing, with the City of Sydney as their community gardens, Landcare and community food systems coordinator, perhaps the qualifications stipulated by the role might offer a clue as to the skill set required by APT or PDC graduates considering such roles. There was only one horticultural qualification required – it was ’a love of gardening’. All the other qualifications were to do with experience and skills in working with people and managing projects. On reflection, I think this is the right mix although I would add the ability to lead a participatory site and group needs analysis process and to make rapid site assessments, as this is sometimes needed to assess the potential of a site for a community garden.

A few permaculture practitioners have commented that vocationally accredited training provides for the acquisition of skills but does not provide much by way of philosophical or background knowledge. This, they say, is the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’. If they are right, then what does it mean for permaculture, a system that is based on a philosophy of life?

Not unexpectedly, the market for APT is dominated by those successful teachers who established their presence through the teaching of the PDC.

The future of permaculture education

Following are a few proposals to upgrade permaculture education. They are based on experience teaching the Permaculture Design Course and working on permaculture projects with professionals:

  • maintain the two-tiered PDC/APT structure with the accredited training for those who intend to apply permaculture design in their vocation, and the existing PDC for those who require a more-general knowledge for application in their dwellings or at the community level; this is how permaculture education has evolved
  • introduce a component of project management into permaculture training; the reason why permaculture projects have failed to persist is often due to the lack of project management skills such as planning, budgeting, monitoring, evaluating, estimating, recruiting, the use of time and resources, negotiating, communicating, consulting and coordinating; project management is the structure through which things get done
  • introduce training in people skills such as communication, decision making, problem solving, resolving conflict, cooperation and participation; the lack of such skills in permaculture (except for some notable examples) has contributed to the failure of projects and organisations; the justification for such skills is permaculture’s second ethic of caring for people
  • address contemporary issues, social and demographic change
  • maintain an open, non-dogmatic atitude to permaculture and bring in solutions developed outside the design system.

Adapting to contemporary realities

If permaculture is to be relevant to modern life than it has to find out where it can intevene in people’s lives to improve them.

This might start with an assessment of contemporary life. Australia is a substantially different place to what it was when permaculture was formulated over 33 years ago and when it enjoyed its major growth phase during the 1990s:

  • social and economic change has produced a populace that is at times fearful of change and that resists it; as well as in other ways, this manifests as NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), the commonly-encountered opposition to new development even when it would benefit the city as a whole
  • time poverty is a reality and must be taken into account in permaculture work in communities; people often work longer hours or in casual work, voluntarily or not (about one-third of the working population); time poverty is a factor particularly affecting families with young children; even so, in courses I have helped to deliver I find that people will sometimes make time available for things they really want to do; in voluntary community activity, leave plenty of time to get things done and avoid too tight a schedule that would risk participant burn-out
  • during the early 1990s, demographers identified a pronounced population shift to the coast with demographic analyst, Bernard Salt, talking of an influential ‘coastal culture’; at the same time there is a drift to the metropolitan cities and to larger regional centres; this is because cities offer opportunity not present in smaller regional centres and towns; the implication is that the populations of the major cities and growing regional centres will attain greater influence in setting the political and social agenda
  • state government policy is driving urban consolidation and a greater number of people are living in apartments, town houses, duplexes and other medium-density developments in our larger cities; apartment living and densities are set to increase as cities strive to accommodate increasing populations — Sydney has to accommodate six million or more by 2030 and much of this will be in medium density dwellings; the increasing popularity of apartment living is also due to the lack of time to manage a garden and to the fact that people do not want a garden or the maintenance responsibilities that come with a house and garden (sometimes due to time-poverty, sometimes to age, often to personal preference), or they want to live near their workplace or are scaling down as their families move out
  • a number or research reports and articles in the media have discerned a move towards quality of life, to making more time for family and other things at the expense of higher paying jobs; some city residents have sacrificed salary and career to live in what they see as the more humane environments of coastal or rural towns  — a process, according to the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton, of ‘downshifting’; in a way it’s the contemporary version of the 1970s notion of ’voluntary simplicity’ although it is about having enough rather than living in austerity; downshifting is reminescent of the Buddhist idea of taking the ’middle way’ between gross affluence and austerity
  • the social isolation of the increasing number of single person and two person households is paralleled by a search for community; on the basis of his research social analyst Hugh Mackay proposes that housing developments reinstate the ‘village green’ as community territory where people enjoy the company of others.

Learn from the development/aid industry

Permaculture practitioners could learn much from the international development industry. This would save them reinventing what already exists.

Techniques and skills that permaculture could learn include:

  • participatory approaches to planning, implementation and evaluation that are in current use by development professionals; these include Participatory Learning and Action (aka: Participatory Appraisal/Participatory Rural Appraisal) and Participatory Technology Development with Farmers
  • project planning and management including strategic planning, evaluation and improving accountability to partners and clients — a project management approach
  • Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA), a collection of approaches and techniques that include organic farming and that minimise inputs, reduce expenditure, boost local enterprise and innovation and make farming, both subsistence and cash cropping, more regionally self-supporting
  • a community development approach involving the participation of people with different but complementary skills
  • humility.

Develop a renewed impetus with new leadership

Permaculture’s leadership is diversified and is anchored in local actions. Leaders are often permaculture educators because of the profile they develop. David Holmgren and Bill Mollison are regarded as leaders because of their roles in inventing the design system.

Leadership in permaculture has always been informal. It is a quality that comes and goes with people’s changing situation in life. Someone now a leader may relinquish that role when they take other life directions while still maintaining a role in the movement — such as when they take up parenting, caring for aged parents, move to a rural ecovillage or take on a demanding job.

Leadership is a difficult concept to discuss in permaculture because permaculturists have always been a somewhat anarchic, egalitarian bunch who do not like being told what to do, not that a leader has to do that. There’s a skepticism towards political leaders in Australian society, this is a healthy trait that should be encouraged as a brake on the overambitious.

Likewise, no single organisation has achieved dominance as the representative leader of the movement. The Permaculture Research Institute did enjoy this status well into the 1990s partly due to its good works and not insignificantly to its capacity for self-publicity. It remains a self-perpetuating business with global ambitions.

The problem with promoting people to leadership positions is that quieter, less public people who have achieved just as much as the higher profile are overlooked. This became apparent at the end of APC9 (Australian Permaculture Convergence) when a Powerpoint presentation on permaculture history was shown. Some who had been around permaculture since its early years were conspicuously missing from the presentation and rumblings were heard afterwards about their and others’ absence. What people had seen was a particular presentation demonstrating the world of permaculture as seen by a particular group around a permaculture association rather than a more representative overview of personalities who had played significant roles in the movement. Leadership seems to be quite a moveable thing.

Intergenerational change — time to consider it seriously

When I started writing the first iteration of The Permaculture Papers around 2003/4, I was pessimistic about a new generation emerging to assume leadership and other roles in permaculture. After the dismal years of 2000 to 2002, during which we lost the Permaculture International Journal and Green Connections and for a while it seemed, our way, permaculture seemed to founder, to lose direction. All wasn’t lost of course, there were creative things going on especially at the local level, however as a national entity the movement seemed to have faltered.

I wrote a piece about the need for intergenerational change in permaculture in The Planet (which I edited at the time), the quarterly newsletter of Permaculture International. This provoked a critical response from one or two that demonstrated to me that throwing devil’s advocate questions into permaculture conversations was dangerous. The capacity for introspection in permaculture, I realised, was in short supply and the type of critical questioning that I was used to from my years in the international development industry was not all that welcome in permaculture.

At the time, the question of intergenerational change was something I felt timely for permaculture as those of us who had brought the movement from its mid-1980s beginnings (some from before that time) to a state akin to the social mainstream were now middle aged. Who would replace us?

Then hope appeared. For me that came at the 2004 Cultivating Community conference in Bendigo, Victoria — a meeting of people involved in the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network. Among those attending were a number of younger people involved both in community gardening and in permaculture. These, I thought, might form the next generation of leaders and, looking back now from 2011, I believe they were.

Some said the ‘leadership’ could not ‘let go’ their positions and stand aside for an emerging leadership, that they were holding on perhaps because of their special interests and livelihoods within permaculture. In one aspect this was true but I think the criticism failed to acknowledge that for those trying to make what has always been a marginal living from permaculture, letting go could not be letting go of the livelihoods that they had struggled to build up over the years.

As of 2010 we had something of a revitalised permaculture thanks in large part to new people coming in with new ideas and new approaches. This complies, I believe, with Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve model of organisational evolution which stipulates that if an entity is to set off on a curve of renewal it frequently requires a new leadership with a fresh outlook and with new ideas. It must be conversant with contemporary realities and have the ability to address them.

Recreate an interactive, lively networking media

In 2006, I wrote that permaculture was in need of two types of publication:

  • a newsletter or magazine to report news, distribute information, publish instructional articles, report issues and opportunities and serve a networking function
  • a scholarly journal for the lengthier analysis and discussion of ideas and issues; this would create an intellectual space within permaculture and encourage self-reflection and learning.

Permaculture International Journal and Permaculture Edge, which performed some of these tasks, cannot be revived, yet there is evidence of a demand for new networking media to foster a national permaculture community-of-practice.

For reasons of cost and time, such media would be online as this is where people go first in search of information, yet that excludes those without internet access although that seems an increasingly small number. This was the dilemma that faced PIL (Permaculture International Ltd) when it sought to revive itself in 2000. A website, online dicussion space and print newsletter was the outcome, with those wanting a printed newsletter paying more to cover paper, printing and postage costs. This, of course, involved more time to design and layout the print edition, which is what I produced. How viable that would be in other situations would have to be determined.

The Permaculture-Oceania email discussion list, launched in 2001 after the year 2000 permaculture gathering at Djanbung Gardens authorised it but based on an earlier email network, was something I started in cooperation with the UNSW Ecoliving Centre. When changes at the university led to the closure of the Centre, PIL took over the dicussion list and continues to operate it for the benefit of the permaculure community as the Permaculture Ausralia list.

Permaculture-Oceania has proven successful in fostering communication among permaculturists in Australia and with a few overseas participants. Traffic is sufficient to maintain a moderate flow of communications, to ask and answer questions, to raise issues, notify events and to follow a discussion string for its duration. The list represents a community of interest, geographically diverse it may be, and was about the only thing tying permaculture together for those critical years of transformation that opened the century. Now, the email service has been supplemented by a number of Facebooks and it is here on social media that most of the permaculture conversation takes place.

Writing again in 2003/4, I said that The Planet, the member’s journal of Permaculture International, would never become a scholarly or learned journal although I had hopes for that when I started it following the year 2000 gathering. I hoped that it would take a form analogous to an industry journal in which issues could be discussed and a knowledge base built. Later, after I ceased to edit it, The Planet reverted to a less-frequent organisational newsletter, a victim of the time constraints of the people who took over its publication.

A number of permaculturists have expressed the desire for a scholarly journal, however the fate of the Permaculture International Journal does not bode well for such a venture in print form. The earlier Permaculture Edge was a publication of this type, however it’s publication became erratic and it ceased publication in the 1990s, the last edition appearing at the 1995 International Permaculture Convergence in Perth. The cessatation of publication left permaculture with no space for cultivating the intellectual garden, no scholarly journal or website where such material could be published, discussed and argued.

An intellectual venue would be of benefit if the movement is to be self-reflective and learn from its experience. Whether the Permaculture Australia website, being set up in late 2011, becomes this remains to be seen.

The worldwide web fulfils a global networking mission with its multiplicity of permaculture websites, yet there is no single website that is a first-port-of-call for permaculture that some have said they would like. It probably won’t happen as the trend is towards multiple websites rather than a single, central entity. The idea is further made unlikely with the move to online social networking as the conversation space where much of the discussion around permaculture now happens.

Develop people skills

Permaculture really has no choice in this matter. It is duty-bound to implement the second ethic of permaculture—care of people—and you cannot care for people without people skills. Whether organisations and individuals that consistently fail to implement the second ethic are fully practising permaculture is open to question.

The Permaculture Design Course has been too short to include training in such skills. When Fiona Campbell and I made the decision to incorporate group process training in our design course—two days of training in group decision making and group processes led by Maria and Richard McGuire from Unfolding Futures—we had to extend the duration of the course. This proved worthwhile because students went on to use the techniques in their working lives. We felt the extra time to be necessary, having seen the cost of poor communciation and poor group processes.

Learn and stay relevant

Reflection has never had much cachet in permaculture. Bill Mollison emphasised doing over talking though what he was warning against was becoming bogged down in excessive analysis — the blockage of ‘paralysis by analysis’. He proposed that things be well considered before acting.

Organisations that do not reflect on their actions fail to learn from their successes and errors. This was recognised by NGO analyst and author Alan Fowler (1997; Striking a Balance, Earthscan, UK) who said some NGOs (he was referring to international development NGOs though what he said would apply to other types including permaculture organisations) were so focused on ‘doing’, on action, that they became unbalanced and ignored the healthy self-analysis that leads to insights and self-improvement.

Reflection, including taking notice of feedback and critique, is essential if organisations are to learn and improve their performance and reputation. Fowler used the term ‘learning organisations’ to describe those that acted on feedback and reflection to improve their performance and methodology.

A balance between reflection and action is a necessity for any effective organisation and is acknowledged in the methodology of ‘action learning’ which is premised on three sequential and cyclic modes—looking, thinking, acting. The result is thoughtful, informed action based on observation and learning, suggesting that the approach is one that would easily fit permaculture.

New times, new needs

The first decade of the new century brought change to permaculture.

In perspective, the loss of PIJ and Green Connections at the start of the decade can be seen as an inflection point after which new ideas and practices evolved. A marked difference between what went before and what comes after is a key characteristic of an inflection point or, to use author Malcolm Gladwell’s term from his book of the same name—a tipping point.

For me, those years were a journey from the disappointment that came from the loss of PIJ and the subsequent soul searching in Permaculture International Ltd and the return of optimism that came with subsequent years. Complicating it personally had been Fiona and my need to withdraw from an active role in permaculture to care for aged parents from late in the previous decade and into the early years of the new one.

The permaculture we enter the second decade of the Twenty First Century with is a different permaculture than that of its adolesence and childhood.

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