The last week or two, I’ve encountered a few people who’ve claimed that Permaculture promotes invasive plants and causes ecosystem damage. As a Permaculture Designer, that would indeed be alarming to me if it were true! Fortunately, I see very little evidence to support these claims, and a huge amount of evidence to the contrary, which we’ll go over into in this post.
So why are people saying this? As Permaculture continues to grow, thrive, and spread, it’s to be expected that it attracts haters—especially from the ”Big Ag” and “Big Lawn” systems that it was created to critique. If everyone loved Permaculture, it would be a sign it wasn’t doing anything effective! And so there are now a number of influencers in the “Alternative food” space who have gained a following by trash talking about Permaculture, while supporting the plastics, poisons, and petroleum approach of industrial agriculture.
This sort of division is as old as resistance movements themselves. As a resistance movement grows, so do the incentives to attack it and dismantle it. So, this is important to keep in mind.
But it’s still important to look at these accusations seriously, both to listen to feedback and correct the problem if it’s true, and to be able to debunk it if it isn’t true.
So let’s look at some of these claims I’ve encountered.
First, Do Permaculturists Promote Invasive Plants?
Well let’s just get right down to what is actually taught in Permaculture courses and books on this topic. In my courses, as well as the ones where I myself learned Permaculture, there were a set of official helpful rules that were taught on the topic of choosing plants. These rules came originally from the Permaculture Designer’s manual, and were taught by Permaculture founder Bill Mollison. This specific wording of the rules were pulled together by Toby Hemenway, one of the most active Permaculture teachers of the last 30 years, and author of the most widely read book on Permaculture, Gaia’s Garden. Here’s how they appear in my books:
How to choose plants:
- Choose native plants first, so that all Permaculture gardens will be rich in native species.
- Only choose proven non-harmful, naturalized exotic plants if no natives exist that can do the job.
- Only plant unproven exotics under carefully controlled circumstances, making sure they can’t escape.
- Never plant known problematic or locally invasive species.
- Never interfere in healthy in-tact ecosystems.
Did Bill Mollison himself promote invasive species?
One version I’ve heard of this claim is that Permaculture founder Bill Mollison himself actively promoted invasive plants! So again, Bill Mollison taught the rules I listed above. Each is also in the book he wrote as the official textbook of Permaculture courses, the Designers’ Manual.
Here, at the top, Bill Mollison says there is an ethical obligation to care for and preserve ALL species, and to use them in our settlements to that purpose, PROVIDING THEY ARE NOT INVASIVE.
So most Permaculture teachers and courses will be teaching specifically to not plant known invasive plants. That has been the case in every Permaculture course and group I have been involved with internationally for 20 years.
I asked these several people making the claim if they could provide any actual examples of Permaculturists promoting invasive species, and they were unable to do so, other than to claim “it is known.” So it appears there is strong evidence that Permaculturists do not “promote invasive plants.”
But do Permaculturists promote destroying healthy native ecosystems?
Another version of this is that Permaculture promotes the destruction of native ecosystems.
Again, this goes against my own experience of 20+ years, and against the whole of the Permaculture literature.
In fact, Bill Mollison devotes a lot of energy to repeating many times one of Permaculture’s most famous rules: “don’t mess in the bush” (as he put it in his movies.) Which means, don’t mess around with healthy vibrant in-tact native ecosystems.
These “ethics on natural systems,” often referred to as “earth care” are one of the 3 ethics taught in all Permaculture classes and books. It was covered in every PDC I’ve ever been involved with, and talked about in every Permaculture group I’ve ever been involved in, too. Again, I searched Facebook, Reddit, and Youtube for any example of Permaculturists recommending against the official Permaculture teaching, but I couldn’t find any.
Now, there could indeed be some rich people out there who took a PDC and then destroyed an ecosystem. I can’t really stop how rich people spend their money, try as I might. But I can say that if they took a PDC and bought the textbook, they were told repeatedly “don’t mess in the bush,” and that Permaculture represented implacable and uncompromising to further disturbance of healthy vibrant ecosystems. These rich people almost certainly took a biology class at some point in their education, too, yet I wouldn’t say “biology classes are destroying ecosystems!!!”
On top of that, Permaculture groups and classes have been the single greatest source of information I’ve personally ever accessed on native plants and their uses. Every Permaculture site I’ve ever visited has been rich in native plants, and the Permaculturists I know are big fans of native plants.
Throughout the PDM, Bill Mollison referred to native plant advocates as a part of Permaculture, and specifically urged all Permaculturists to support those groups and their cause.
So it appears to me the people who are making these claims are mostly just, well, making up these claims with no evidence to support them. They seem to be very poorly informed about the topics they opine upon, and very poor sources of information. But again, in a world where big ag and big lawn are dominant institutions, there will be rewards for those who choose to promote division and infighting within the resistance against global ecological destruction. I believe this same division pressures are part of the reason for the unhealthy debate around some activist communities, in general.
But doesn’t Permaculture critique the concept of “invasive plants?”
No. Permaculture does not. Because Permaculture is a system of design (and a community of folks who use it and promote that system.) Permaculture is not a science, so Permaculture is not in the business of critiquing scientific concepts.
But Permaculture DOES look at what scientists are saying and advocating for. And on this case, the science of invasion biology and the concept of invasive species in particular has been very controversial for decades, and has drawn a large amount of critique from within the scientific community. For example, even the author of the first review of Invasion Biology literature, widely used as a textbook for the field, has called for reform of some of the key concepts, including that of the term “invasive,” and he did so within one of the world’s most respected science journals.
Multiple teams of leading researchers in conservation science have questioned the paradigm of “invasives management” and have found that in many cases, non-intervention is a better research-based approach.
And researchers have pointed out that global indigenous communities also oppose the rhetoric and practice of extremist invasion biologists.
And even multiple surveys of peer-reviewers within Invasion Biology found that while some activists claim there’s a scientific consensus on the topic, these Invasion Biology concepts are rejected by a majority of the researchers in the field.
These critiques do not come from “Permaculture,” they come from what appears to be a majority leading researchers around the world. Permaculturists only cite this science when they’re attacked by over-zealous activists who themselves do not understand the science.
But even then, Permaculturists are not promoting planting invasive species! And there’s little evidence to support the claim to the contrary. Anyone who claims otherwise is showing themselves to either be poorly informed about the topics they choose to opine about, or perhaps just making stuff up for the rewards that flow to agents of division against a resistance movement.