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Liberation Permaculture: a response to Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett

Liberation Permaculture: a response to  Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett
Russ Grayson

This is a response to an article about what Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett call ‘Liberation Permaculture’ in their article on the UK Permaculture magazine website…

Recommended: First Read Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett’s article on Liberation Permaculture: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/what-liberation-permaculture

LIBERATION PERMACULTURE, described in the article on Permaculture magazine’s website by UK permaculture practitioners, Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett, raises again the tricky question of permaculture’s participation in the political process. This has been something of a sleeper issue within the social movement around permaculture. Sure, it has surfaced briefly from time to time but then it has been put back into hibernation. So it’s good that the authors again resurrect it from its slumbers.

Their article proposing what would be a new branch of the permaculture tree, a new organisational path — Liberation Permaculture — suggests that for considering the political/economic/cultural question (for all those things are manifestations of the dominant political ideology) that now is the time and place.

The Mollisonian approach

Whenever the political question is raised in permaculture, my brain automatically flicks a switch that opens a flow of memories about permaculture’s co-inventor, Bill Mollison, and his seemingly contradictory approach to permaculture’s intervention in the political processes of our societies. These might be less contradictory and more an evolution in his thinking, as they are separated in time.

A swale water retention trench in the educational permaculture garden at Calmsley Hill City Farm in south western Sydney, seen here under construction. The installation was an Urban Landcare project designed by Sydney permaculture designer, Bronwyn Rice.

Taking permaculture beyond the home garden… a water retention trench in the educational permaculture garden at Calmsley Hill City Farm in south western Sydney, seen here under construction. The installation was an Urban Landcare project designed by Sydney permaculture designer, Bronwyn Rice. The brick structure at left above the garden is a double-cavity brick worm farm. The garden was part of a public education program.

First I recall his criticism of the campaigning approach of social movements (I context this in its time later) and how campaigners fought what they were against but not what they were for. In other words, they didn’t attempt to create the world they preferred and put their time and energy into combatting what they didn’t want.

Later, Bill proposed the creation of the Permaculture Peoples’ Party (and https://www.facebook.com/PermaculturePeoplesParty ) to contest elections in Australia. This gained some traction, but not much. Eventually it faded into that nether world where reside permaculture ideas that didn’t happen.

But engaging with electoral politics didn’t completely disappear from the Australian permaculture milieu. While permaculture-the-social-movement has never again moved towards political engagement as a unified entity, individuals active within the movement have. When it comes to the mainstream political parties, the policies of the Australian Greens have found the closest affinity with permaculture practitioners and it is my unsubstantiated belief that a good many permaculture practitioners vote Green in federal, state and local elections.

You only have to follow Australian permaculture social media (and  https://www.facebook.com/groups/PermacultureAust.NZ/) to come to the conclusion that many in the movement regard politics with a good dose of utter contempt. Politicians of course deserve this and find little respect from permaculturists and those of similar ilk. I should point out that it is an Australian tradition to show dislike, distrust and contempt of politicians.

A few years ago someone in the UK took the Transition Towns movement to task for focusing on the work it does while ignoring the destruction of UK social institutions going on around it. Transition Towns is an approach to the ‘building the world you want to see’ model suggested by the Buckminster Fuller quote cited by the authors:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

An assumed neutrality

It is a provocative statement in permaculture that the authors make: ” …do we continue to doggedly insist that permaculture is ‘neutral’ and stick to designing our gardens and insist on being ‘nice to each other’ rather than speaking our truth to Power?”

May I reach back into my own experience to think about that?

When Fiona Campbell and I ran our urban permaculture design courses in Sydney some years ago, we wanted the landcare, peoplecare and redistribution of surplus resources permaculture ethics to be more than some glib statement that people quoted. Our students would spend some time delving into them to extract meaning and discussing how they could be applied in their own lives.

It soon became clear that those ethics positioned permaculture as being far from politically and economically neutral. It was clear that those ethics were quite different to those espoused by various nation states, economic systems and political philosophies.

While permaculture is an intellectual technology that can be practiced across class and economic divides, to truly live it at any level higher than the go-it-alone practice of home gardening is to deliberately adopt a mindset, values and practices that are far from those of neoliberal, socialist or even some interpretations of libertarian political and philosophical practices.

I agree with Nicole and Graham that there exists the notion among permaculture practitioners that their philosophy and practice are “neutral” in the political and economic sense, and I agree with their statement about the notion being “doggedly” insisted upon within the social movement that is permaculture.

For years I have said that to be truly practiced, permaculture people need to take their work beyond designing their gardens and out into the societies they inhabit. To do permaculture you don’t even need a garden because permaculture, after all, is a design system, not a gardening system.

Permaculture has always had a focus on home food production. This is Bruce Zell’s home garden in tropical Far North Queensland. Permaculture is a lot more than home gardening, however.

Permaculture has always had a focus on home food production. This is Bruce Zell’s home garden in tropical Far North Queensland. Permaculture is a lot more than home gardening, however.

Bucky Fuller

Buckminster Fuller was a great man. A polymath. That’s one reason his statement quoted above, about how to go about creating change, is so frequently quoted.

…you have to create the things you want to see as well as seek change through opposing those you don’t want…

The authors mention that it has some relationship to what Joanna Macy calls “‘The Great Turning’ — the need for a paradigm shift in the human mindset; fundamentally reassessing who we are, what we assume we need and how we are related to our living planet and to each other.”

It is difficult to disagree with Joanne Macy so I won’t try and I have no reason to. I just want to say that while I agree with what she says are our needs to reassess our relationships, I think they come across as a little too esoteric to gain any mass adherence. They’re big things. They demand a lot of introspective thinking and they demand having the time to do that. Time is something in limited quantity to many people living lives within the social mainstream.

To get back to Bucky Fuller’s statement, it is based on the assumption that people have the knowledge, skills, mindsets and technologies to actually go out and create the change he speaks of. Take a look around and you soon see that isn’t true. Nonetheless, the statement is also a truism — you have to create the things you want to see as well as seek change through opposing those you don’t want.

…Bill said that campaigning organisations simply opposed what they didn’t want to see rather than create what they did want…

Bucky’s quote reinforces the critique made by Bill Mollison some decades ago about campaigning organisations. That was made during the heyday of Australia’s environment movement and was probably directed at it. Bill said that campaigning organisations simply opposed what they didn’t want to see rather than create what they did want. I get what he was saying and there is some truth to it, however the oppositional, campaigning politics of those environment groups saved a lot of natural systems that now yield economic value to regions and were instrumental in creating legislative change.

I think a more inclusive, more holistic — to borrow that overused word — approach that combines the two approaches to creating change is likely to be the most effective. Opposing that which is harmful and destructive of societies and cultures, that is, while simultaneously building what you would replace it with. It might not be the same people that do both, however it is necessary for all to realise they stand on the same continuum of change.

The authors say it nicely: “I’d argue that to embrace Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fairshares IS explicitly political, and while of course we are all about celebrating the positive and co-creating the alternatives, to my mind permaculture is also about openly and explicitly siding with the oppressed rather than keeping quiet about those doing the oppressing.”

Am I right in reading this as their espousing the idea that permaculture design should be directed to social ends and to assisting those without the knowledge, access to information, skills or technologies to provide their basic needs rather than squeezing the design system into a niche in the existing socio-political structure?

If so, their notion of “liberation permaculture” can be reinterpreted as ‘liberation design’.

Stultifying the conversation

Nicole and Graham say that “Fuller’s words of wisdom can become an almost default position whenever questions around ‘permaculture and political engagement’ are posed on social media, a ‘trump card’ homily whereby we can all nod wisely without any further comment or thought, because we all have loftier goals than concerning ourselves with the activities of a government that is openly declaring war on the poor and vulnerable, the environment, workers rights, basic health care provision, civil liberties and no end of other things we once took for granted.”

A “default position” the authors say. Can I add to that how permaculture practitioners sometimes quote the principles of permaculture in a similar way? Those are mostly David Holmgren’s principles, those of Bill Mollison seemingly have been pushed somewhere into the background since David launched his Pathways book over a decade ago.

…Principles are ideas that are selected from and that are relevant to particular circumstances. They may not always be applicable. They are not laws…

Quoting Fuller can be, as the authors say, a means of closing down discussion and critical thought — and as that is something permaculture was originally based on, so we might detect just a wisp of contradiction here. One UK ex-permaculturist I read some years back likened the recitation of the permaculture principles to the way Christians recite the Ten Commandments. In other words, principles-as-cliche.

Principles are ideas that are selected from and that are relevant to particular circumstances. They may not always be applicable. They are not laws.

The authors offer a list that they say permaculture practitioners ignore because they have “loftier goals”. Yet, when you look through their list all you see are instantiations directly related to any meaningful application of permaculture’s first and second ethics — those of landcare and peoplecare. For those who believe permaculture is neutral and should only build alternative structures rather than oppose what is happening, my question in regard to the authors’ list is this: just how do you go about effectively building “a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”, to quote Bucky Fuller?

As for the person Nicole and Graham say “cheerfully admitted to using Fuller’s quote as a way to purposely end conversations”, Well, what can we say other than this person chooses to ignore the type of critical thinking Bill Mollison and David Holmgren applied when they invented the permaculture design system.

Ideas like permaculture arise from discussions of what’s wrong with things as they are. Not all that long ago, to talk in permaculture circles about what’s wrong was to be branded as being ‘negative’. Discussing permaculture solutions was seen as being ‘positive’. This simple-minded thinking set up an adversarial model of thought and polarised the discussion. It was also a closure — nobody wants to be seen as negative, so it would be natural for people to clam-up and say nothing more. The reality, as many reading this would know, especially those who have had problem-solving roles in the world of work, is that the first step in developing solutions is analysing the problem.

Even Bill’s principle of ‘the problem is the solution’ can be a little misleading. Surely, if the problem was its own solution then it wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. What I think this often glibly-and-unthinkingly-quoted principle is getting at is that, with the proper amount of critical and analytical thought, problems can throw up solutions to associated problems though not necessarily the problem at hand. This has been my experience, anyway.

Doing what the authors say and “putting hard questions aside” is just avoidance of reality, but reality is that which is still there even when you choose to ignore it. It is still going to affect your family, your friends, your organisations, your society — and you.

Misrepresenting the counterculture

“Neutrality”, Nicola and Graham write, “is often tacit consent, and I’d counter the Bucky Fuller quote with another, this time from the punk band Crass on the ‘hippy’ idealists of the 1960s and 70s;

“They formed little groups, like rich man’s ghettos
Tending their goats and organic tomatoes
While the world was being fucked by fascist regimes
They talked of windmills and psychedelic dreams”.

“Neutrality” here is also a way of avoiding thinking about and making decisions on uncomfortable realities in our societies. This, I guess, is where Nicole and Graham’s “tacit consent” comes in. Avoidance does nothing to effect change, thus it is a vote for the status quo — for that which exists.

I’ll go along with the statement about “psychedelic dreams” being something of a self-indulgent diversion. But maybe the punks were reflecting on the “hippy idealists” of the UK. The Australian experience is different and applying the punk band’s critique here is to misrepresent what in Australia was a large social movement.

While ‘hippie’ was a common and sometimes derogeratory term here, the label ‘alternative’ was more commonly used through the 1970s, as in alternative energy systems, alternative culture, even alternative economics. Crass’ UK-centric critique is not applicable in Australia as it was those ‘alternatives’ that tinkered with and developed what we today call renewable energy systems. Their intentional communities morphed into today’s ecovillages, such as Crystal Waters, the first to be branded with the ‘permaculture’ label.

A resident of the Crystal Waters — the world’s first permaculture ecovillage — Morag Gamble (with daughter Maia) teaches permaculture design through Seed International.

A resident of the Crystal Waters — the world’s first permaculture ecovillage — Morag Gamble (with daughter Maia) teaches permaculture design through Seed International.

The alternatives were well represented among the many responsible for saving large tracts of natural systems from destructive development — and this implied political involvement in the direct democracy sense. Their experiments with natural healing systems laid the foundation for today’s mainstream industry. Their self-build practices provided affordable, DIY housing. And — let’s not forget — this alternative social movement, that in Australia comprised tens of thousands, provided much of the readiness for and underpinning of a new approach to ecological design that goes by the name of permaculture. Those people formed a large contingent of the first demographic to practice permaculture.

As I said, that punk band’s words must reflect the UK experience because it does not reflect the experience anywhere else. It is also a little hypocritical, given the convergence on attitudes to mainstream society that came out of the punk movement and that of the hippies they so obviously despise. Perhaps the other significant difference is that in “tending their goats and organic tomatoes” those hippies were actually trying to build a better society, a practice largely missing within punk culture. And as for forming “little groups, like rich man’s ghettos”, that couldn’t be further from reality for that was exactly what those hippies and the later alternatives were getting away from. Few were wealthy in the monetary sense. Let’s face it — that song is deeply flawed in its misrepresentation of social history.

But are these theoretical statements? How do I know this?

Because I was there.

A home in Jalanbah village, Nimbin, northern NSW. Designed by permaculture educator, Robyn Francis, Jalanbah is an example of ecovillage design. The antecedents of today’s ecovillages in Australia were the intentional communities of the 1970s.

A home in Jalanbah village, Nimbin, northern NSW. Designed by permaculture educator, Robyn Francis, Jalanbah is an example of ecovillage design. The antecedents of today’s ecovillages in Australia were the intentional communities of the 1970s.

Exploring definitions

In their list defining what Liberation Permaculture might be, Nicole and Graham say that it “Places permaculture in the context of rebuilding land based cultures rather than ‘fitting in’ or mainstreaming into capitalist & oppressive societies“.

There’s a few links with past permaculture conversations over the years here. Yes, land-based cultures are a good idea, however now that most of the world’s population lives in cities we need the urban equivalent to land-based cultures for people without access to land.

To get at what I am saying, consider this: Once, I asked a permaculture practitioner how permaculture, with its gardening focus, would apply to the growing number of urban people living in high-rise apartments. His reply? It didn’t.

That surely was a failure not only of understanding permaculture but also a failure of imagination. It brings to mind Bill Mollison’s statement about not needing a garden to practice permaculture but obtaining your food from a source that has produced it in an ethical manner.

The mainstreaming question is more difficult. Here in Australia, Permaculture Australia, the national organisation, developed APT — Accredited Permaculture Training — at the certificate and diploma level so that permaculture would be mainstreamed into the tertiary education system. The range of courses provide nationally recognised vocation training.

A further motivator was the failure of permaculture to be recognised as a valid practice among the professional design disciplines. This limited its potential. The difference was that those disciplines called for three or four years of university or TAFE education whereas all permaculture could offer was a Permaculture Design Certificate of a minimum 72 hour duration. That was clearly inadequate to practice design in any professional sense as it did not provide the depth of knowledge necessary. APT was thus seen as the pathway into the mainstream.

A further insight into permaculture and how it fits into mainstream institutions and society is provided by my partner who is employed by a local government as a community sustainability educator. Her role is to contribute to building community resilience. When she started in the job nearly a decade ago, she said that she couldn’t use the word ‘permaculture’ because of the way it was understood. Now, however, she can offer two day permaculture introductory courses, obtained funding to build the Permaculture Interpretive Garden and can hire a permaculture-trained landscape architect and an architect as consultants. That’s because permaculture has gone through something of a socially-mainstreaming process.

Fiona Campbell strolls through the Permaculture Interpretive Garden, a local government project. The garden offers take-home ideas about food production to visitors and is both a council training venue and a public park aimed at increasing urban food resiliency.

Fiona Campbell strolls through the Permaculture Interpretive Garden, a local government project. The garden offers visitors take-home ideas about food production and is both a council training venue and a public park aimed at increasing urban food resiliency.

So what I am getting at is that mainstreaming permaculture isn’t all bad. But I get what I think Nicole and Graham are saying — that permaculture shouldn’t be warped by morphing it to fit the needs of latter-day corporate capitalism.

Nicole and Graham speak of using “the practical applications of permaculture e.g. food growing, cleaning water, to genuinely improve people’s lives beyond that of a privileged few.”

I’m unsure who the “privileged few” are, however I do know that what the authors write about has been a motivation of many permaculture practitioners engaging with people in lesser developed countries. A portion of permaculture overseas development assistance has been naive in its approach, such as the hit-and-run educators who go in, offer a workshop or two, then disappear. No follow-up. No opportunity to solve problems that arise. Likewise, the misguided permaculture practitioners who rush overseas to teach people living a traditional, agriculture-based lifeway how to grow food.

Other interventions in overseas development assistance, such as that provided by Permaculture Global Assistance Network (now defunct) and that coming through the NGO I worked for on Solomon Islands and PNG programs — APACE (Appropriate Technology for Community and Environment) was good.

Horticultural educator and educator with Inner West Seedsavers, Jane Mowbray (left) in the Permaculture Interpretive Garden. Seen at the banana trees behind is horticultural educator, Leesa Burton.

Horticultural educator and trainer with Inner West Seedsavers, Jane Mowbray (left) in the Permaculture Interpretive Garden. Seen at the banana trees behind is horticultural educator, Leesa Burton.

Liberation Permaculture — a new intervention?

The idea of Liberation Permaculture is perhaps one whose time has come, as the saying goes. It is good that Nicole and Graham raise it for, developed further, it could form a new direction for a design system that has all-too-often been interpreted as yet another approach to organic gardening.

I wonder if Nicole and Graham plan to do anything more to develop the idea? I believe it deserves further exploration and definition. I hope they take it forward.

Read Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett’s article on Liberation permaculture: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/what-liberation-permaculture

Associated stories:

Towards Permaculture 3.0: http://pacific-edge.info/2015/03/towards-permaculture-3/

In the Anthropocene, what role for permaculture?: http://pacific-edge.info/2015/03/in-the-anthropocene-what-role-for-permaculture/

Small and slow solutions — a principle too little, too late?: http://pacific-edge.info/2015/02/small-and-slow-solutions-a-principle-too-little-too-late/

The household economy — time for reimagining?: http://pacific-edge.info/2015/02/the-household-economy-time-now-for-reimagining/

The household solution — too small to push change?http://pacific-edge.info/2014/11/the-household-solution-too-small-to-push-change/

Permaculture and political actionhttp://www.permaculturenorth.org.au/Resources/Documents/Teams/Advocacy/Permaculture%20and%20Political%20Action.pdf

Value the edge — permaculture as counterculture in Australia: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/915

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