Why I can’t say “indigenous people invented permaculture.”

… Or “permaculture is an indigenous science,” or other similar phrases.

Who invented “permaculture?” The conventional answer is probably the most accurate and helpful one. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren “invented” or better yet “created” permaculture, coined the word, and then evolved it into a complete design system with an ever-growing community of teachers and practitioners.

Statements like “permaculture was invented by indigenous people” is troublesome in a couple big ways: it isn’t very accurate, it distorts what permaculture is, and it echoes some nasty white supremacist ideas from the history of the environmental movement that belong in the dustbin of history.

Before we get into all that, I’d like to say that all permaculturists should be outspoken allies to indigenous struggles for sovereignty, indigenous action on environmental causes like water protection, and indigenous movements like Landback. And, we should be very rigorous in always citing indigenous sources for patterns and techniques. More than that, we should be active in promoting indigenous leaders, indigenous teachers, and workshops on indigenous techniques by indigenous communities.

But I cannot ethically say “indigenous people invented permaculture.”

Firstly, because it’s just not very accurate or true.

What is permaculture? It is a specific system of ecological design with ethics, principles, methods of design, a formal design process based on the Pattern Language approach, and a growing number of “pattern languages,” books filled with useful patterns for different aspects of creating a just and sustainable society.

Clearly, nothing remotely like that ever existed before David Holmgren, Bill Mollison, and the growing community of permaculture practitioners did the work to hammer it out and bring it into the world. Of course, like ALL acts of creation, Mollison and Holmgren had inspiration. All acts of creation are a matter of ”synthesis,” building things out of already existing parts. If I paint a picture of a landscape, I am taking an existing technique, painting, and trees, and flowers, and existing colors and paints and so on, and putting them together in a novel, meaningful way. I think it’s fair to say I created that painting. Mollison and Holmgren did the creative work of putting together all these ideas and synthesizing them into something very new, very creative, and so useful that it has been adopted by probably millions of people, and that had never existed before.

Which is why I usually try to avoid the whole controversy by adopting the editorial technique of using a capital P for Permaculture, to be clear it is the name of one very specific system for ecological design. But here, it is clear that the more general set of aspirations people call lower-case permaculture are driven by the design system Permaculture, and there is confusion and conflict arising over this disagreement.

So, permaculture is MUCH more than just a set of techniques. But let’s look at those techniques, the “patterns” of permaculture. Are THEY indigenous? I went through the Permaculture Designer’s Manual, which is also the curriculum for the original Permaculture Design Course, and found probably less than 1/3rd has to do with patterns for growing systems. Of those, I’d guestimate 1/3rd are from well-cited indigenous sources. (It has become fashionable to claim Mollison never cited indigenous sources, but those claiming that cannot have ever read any Mollison.) The rest come from ecosystem modeling, scientific best practices, European practices, and novel patterns created by various individuals.

The rest of the book is about banking system and investing strategies, what we could call “capitalism survival strategies,” how to use heavy equipment, passive solar designs, retrofits for European style houses, community organizing strategies and tools, and an understanding of comparative climates. OF all of this, Mollison repeatedly said the most important part was the ideas of banking. In fact, he characterized all the rest of permaculture as just pieces of this “banking” strategy and what he called “asset class analysis.”

Clearly, none of that is “an indigenous invention.”

So, saying so is condescending to indigenous people, it is not very true at all, and it gives a misleading view of what permaculture is. But there’s a much bigger reason I can’t say things like permaculture is repackaged indigenous wisdom.”

“Noble Savage Racism:” Environemtnalism’s White Supremacist Past

“Noble savage racism” is a term I learned about in multiple anti-racism and anti-colonialism workshops offered by professional POC academics in that field, and have since gone on to read a few books on the topic. I mention their authority, because often well-meaning white permaculture teachers who are amateurs on the topic offer workshops on these topics that are opposed to the ideas being taught by POC professionals in the anti-racism movement.

In the past, it was common for white environmentalists to attempt to promote their goals, narratives, and livelihoods by framing indigenous people as “noble savages” who exhibited almost magical powers. While it sounds like allyship to say “indigenous people have land magic” it is actually dehumanizing and othering, and it reduces their actual techniques, accomplishments and achievements to being just something that sprang naturally from the goodness of their blood.

Past environmentalists used this dehumanizing narrative to sell books, sell photographs, and quite perversely, to promote “environmental” goals like the seizure of indigenous land to create “national parks.”

This same attitude of romanticized “noble savage racism,” I was taught, is what created a market for white folks to appropriate indigenous clothing and culture to sell to white consumers to own a piece of that indigenous magic. In my reading, this is one of the most cited examples of harmful, racist cultural appropriation in the literature on that topic.

So, if I as a white man, were to promote or sell workshops on banking strategies and home energy efficiency upgrades as “indigenous wisdom,” that looks pretty much identical to the worst examples of racist cultural appropriation of the past. I might as well open a roadside shack with a stuffed bear and sell “peace pipes,” dream catchers and ceremonial headdresses (by the way, there are white permaculture teachers who are in my opinion not too far from doing exactly that.) Promoting my agenda by calling permaculture “an indigenous invention” looks indistinguishable to me from the worst noble savage racism of the past.

And even if we look at the indigenous patterns permaculturists cite and take inspiration from, these are not “peramculture.” Indigenous peoples have their own systems. They have TEK, traditional ecological knowledge. TEK is not permaculture it is TEK. A Womanapnoag Three Sisters Garden is not permaculture, it is Wampanoag TEK.

Planting the permaculture flag in these indigenous techniques and calling them “permacutlure” looks like the worst sort of colonialism. And these things don’t have to be “permaculture” to be cool, or for us to promote them.

Now, if someone who is an indigenous person, who has studied permaculture wants to say that, I’m not going to argue. But as a white person, I really should not go around saying that. And if we are teaching white people to say “permaculture is an indigenous invention” then that looks very problematic to me.

I know it’s positive to question narratives of white invention and to build narratives of BIPOC leadership. But we also need to be careful we are not achieving our goals with condescending misinformation and racist tropes.

So instead of an overly simplistic narrative that “permaculture is just repackaged appropriated indigenous wisdom” I think we need to be nuanced and thoughtful.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren created Permaculture, then evolved it in cooperation with an ever-growing community of teachers and practitioners who have, in Mollison’s words, “Made it their own.” Because that is the truth. And we can hold various indigenous societies up as providing some of the best models we can learn from. We can even center indigenous resistance to westernism in our discussions of permaculture and that doesn’t require us to lie about its history or what it is. We can try to actually promote indigenous experts in teaching that, instead of appropriating it as part of permacutlure. And we can promote indigenous leadership and solidarity with indigenous activism, struggles for sovereignty, and “landback.”

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