What is Permaculture? Why is it confusing? Why does it matter?

It matters that we call Permaculture design.

This piece by Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, is still the best update on the Topic since Mollison and Holmgren coined the word.

Acording to Hemenway, it is confusing because we find ourselves in the midst of a global paradigm shift. That paradigm shift is from the perspective that what is important is humans meeting their needs (with some humans being more important than others) to the idea that we should meet our needs while caring for the planet and other people. Increasingly, that worldview is focusing on people, such as the rights and roles of indigenous peoples.

I argue that another part of that paradigm shift is the move towards a post rational worldview, as we have discussed in this group. This is one that reintegrates our spiritual and intuitive side with our reason. It is about reconnecting with sacrednesss without abandoning science to do so.

That new paradigm is a new worldview, and there is a movement around that new worldview. There are new science fields and new research methods evolving to fit that worldview as well.

But according to Hemenway, Permaculture is not really that worldview, that science, or that movement, and it probably shouldn’t claim to be. It is just nested within that worldview and movement, along with those new sciences and disciplines.

First if we call permaculture a lens or a worldview, then we are basically just charging for some wish washy set of beliefs, we are charging for a religion. And, Permaculture and it’s ethics and principles were not designed for that purpose, so they would be a very poor tool for the job! Permaculture’s ethics are quite appropriate to the task of communicating values and helping us think when we are designing our gardens and community organizations. But they are certainly unfit to solve big ethical problems, or to answer the questions of a religion or worldview.

And if we are charging for a spiritual attainment, there is no way to add accountability to that. Permaculture becomes something like Scientology.

But yes, people probably need to have internalized some major elements of this emerging worldview for permaculture to make sense.

Next, when we say it is the movement, it appears we are appropriating a whole lot that is not permaculture, including indigenous movements for sovereignty, movements to revive indigenous spirituality, anti racism, and so on. Planting our flag in those looks pretty colonial and ends up causing a lot of conflicts. And again, permaculture has few tools for conscious design of something like a movement.

Finally, Permaculture is not a science. A science collects and organizes data to answer questions and grow knowledge through experimentation. Permaculture does not do this, and when Permaculturists do, we are doing agronomy or horticulture, or Ekistics, the science of human settlements. And things that call themselves sciences and aren’t are usually pseudosciences to be wary of.

What Permaculture is is what it was designed to be: a pattern based design system to help regular people design better lives, landscapes, livelihoods and communities. Even when it is working poorly, that is still what it is doing, spreading better ways to do things by communicating in “patterns” like hugelkultures and swales.

So I love informal definitions that help people understand it better. “It’s working with nature rather than against it.” But then let me invite you to also follow that up with, “it’s a system of design” too, so we can start dispelling the confusion.

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