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PacificEdge | November 22, 2017

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Farewell SAVE… but what is permaculture’s future in sustainability education?

Farewell SAVE… but what is permaculture’s future in sustainability education?

YESTERDAY WAS THE FINALE event signifying the ending of the SAVE (Sustainable Action Values Everyone) program.

SAVE was a state government-funded sustainability education initiative implemented by local government and aimed at lower-income demographics.

Yesterday’s event in Sydney city, which brought together around 150 people most of whom had some involvement in the program’s implementation—some came from as far as Orange—marked the end of the three year program which built community gardens, cycle remake sheds, domestic energy reduction and water harvesting and more.

Management of the entire program was by a team of three smart young women housed by the City of Sydney at Town Hall House. When I was working with that organisation I had the privilege to work with that team as part of an ad hoc project group.

Permaculture present and absent

It was good to meet with three other people closely associated with permaculture at yesterday’s event, two working in local government sustainability education and the other working on a food program out on the urban fringe. There was another similarly-minded associated with the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and who was similarly engaged in community food work. One of them made the comment that permaculture as an idea, and in the form of people, was largely absent from the program and yesterday’s event although ideas closely associated with permaculture were present.

What this signifies is that those ideas have been absorbed into the social mainstream from a variety of sources. This I saw during my time working in local government, an example being when the council launched a public consultation to harvest ideas for the Sustainable Communities project in Chippendale. Over the four evening sessions, only the first attracted a couple people active in permaculture, however they did not live in the area and came only to that first session as observers. Otherwise, the consultation was permaculture-free although the ideas that emerged around the whole-of-precinct approach were very much what you would anticipate permaculture practitioners would contribute.

These instances I mention can be seen as the maturing of ideas around sustainability that have also been the property of permaculture, though not exclusively. It opens the question as to where permaculture’s cutting edge—it’s point of difference—is to be found today. It also raises the question, and the opportunity, about how permaculture trained people would come to populate this band present at the SAVE finale event, whose work for the most part is associated with sustainability education of some kind (there were also a small number of administrative people from Housing NSW and local government present).

Permaculture—strategy at which level?

One explanation for the absence of permaculture people from this educator’s milieu is supported by statements made by David Holmgren—that permaculture has evolved as a community-based approach to sustainability rather than as something taken up by institutions such as local and state government. I must balance this by saying that there are a small number of people with permaculture backgrounds active in local government and in some cases their roles have enabled them to build infrastructure of value to communities and to community sustainability education.

What David said about permaculture as a community strategy must be seen as a success of the design system. It is positive and it is empowering for those involved. Permaculture practitioners can implement good works on private land as well as on public land, but only to the extent local government (or state government where it is the landholder) allows it.

Guerrilla action and its limits

Sure, permaculture practitioners can take guerrilla action and install plantings and other works on public land, however their works have no security of tenure.

When working in local government I managed to get the administration to accept the presence of a guerrilla community garden on city land slated for future sale for housing until the land was sold, and then assist the group to find an alternative site. The site did not meet city criteria for acquisition as public open space on account of public safety—there was only a single avenue of passive surveillance from the street and adjacent premises. The grounds I got it informally accepted on was that the group made productive use of unused urban land that would otherwise have to be maintained by the City.

Likewise, when I discovered the work of guerrilla composters in a small Redfern park and at the end of a dead end street (one a guerrilla wormfarm complete with instructions for use) I kept it quiet and made the decision that, as the installations showed evidence of use, as they were well maintained and were clearly socially and environmentally beneficial, they should remain.

My point in these first hand examples is that someone with a permaculture background working in institutions like local government, occupying roles with limited decision making power, can influence what community groups and social entrepreneurs can do in public places and help define the boundaries of what David Holmgren says about the design system being primarily a community-based entity.


It’s clear that having permaculture-trained local government staff can support community enterprise when those people are in positions to wield influence. But how do we get them there?

Most local government staff working in sustainability education hold tertiary qualifications in environmental management or environmental science. Few have training in communication or adult education, which are critical skills for the work.

One point of entry is for people already employed in sustainability education or in other areas of local government to acquire a permaculture education. They would need incentive to do so. While the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) would suffice, perhaps it’s the Accredited Permaculture Training certificates that would hold most appeal as they are a nationally recognised qualification and would add to students’ official qualifications.

An alternative way for permaculture practitioners to enter the sustainability education industry through local government and other landholding institutions is to gain permaculture qualifications, engage in voluntary community work using the skills and knowledge they acquire in their training and to apply for positions as they come up.

Both of these approaches would take time and the latter would require a period of voluntary work.

Voluntary community work has traditionally been an avenue into sustainability education and a valuable source of experience, yet there is today sometimes an expectation that coming straight out of a Permaculture Design Course, without any other relevant qualifications, entitles people to immediate paid work.

In some ways the Permaculture Design Course is responsible for this attitude, or used to be (I don’t know if it is still a practice) because permaculture educators would tell students that their learning, over as little as 72 hours of the traditional design course, was somehow equivalent to professional qualifications that require up to four years of intensive study.

That this is erroneous can sometimes be seen in the designs produced by PDC graduates, which pay little attention to real-world constraints of budget, landform and drainage, client design brief, worksafe legislation, local and state government regulations and design thinking.

The PDC remains a useful educational tool for community and home-based, simple projects but has not gained recognition as a quasi-professional qualification.


Because SAVE was a program-based initiative, it had a beginning and an end and that end was symbolically reached yesterday. Now, there’s these smart young people at large, seeking new opportunities to apply their learning and experience.

It is these people that permaculture graduates will compete with for positions in sustainability education in local government and NGOs and—were we to somehow define and plan paths to livelihoods in sustainability in permaculture—that they could join.

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