Interesting and welcome post by Craig Mackintosh of the Australian Permaculture research Institute discussing the role of metaphysics and “spirituality” in the Permaculture movement.
I personally often feel frustrated that too many permaculturists are mixing subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements into their courses, and are thereby helping to ensure permaculture is relegated to the periphery rather than — as desperately needs to happen — being taken up broad scale by all people everywhere, regardless of their culture and preferred belief system.
As permaculture teacher myself, this is an issue I have been wrestling with myself for the past several years, in the PC (permaculture) movement as well as the wider environmental movement.
The concern is that Permaculture Design Courses- which are typically run over 10 days or two weeks as residential courses- are being diluted and compromised by some teachers who include time or even give classes on spiritual beliefs and practices, including Shamanism, yoga, and other aspects of New Age or Earth religion.
Apart from just taking up time, and alienating some people, Mackintosh also makes the excellent point that this kind of New Age spirituality that is clearly so strongly connected with permaculture is potentially just one of many interpretations, and if permaculture aims to be inclusive- which is often one of the justification for “being open” to New Age stuff- it would also need to embrace and facilitate every other spiritual and religious belief under the sun, from Islam to Mormonism.
I was also pleased to see this early quote from Bill Mollison, the co-creator of permaculture, who clearly saw this as an issue right from the start and took a dim view of the fairy-worshippers:
As I have often been accused of lacking that set of credulity, mystification, modern myth and hogwash that passes today for New Age Spirituality, I cheerfully plead guilty. Unqualified belief, of any breed, disempowers any individuals by restricting their information.
Thus, permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. We permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations.
-Bill Mollison, Travels in Dreams
One commentator told of the anecdote of the time Mollison was watching lions with some tribesmen in Africa. As the lions became interested in them and moved closer, the Australian became nervous. “Don’t worry,” said his guides, “If we get eaten by lion, we come back as lion.”
Unconvinced, Bill wryly responded, “If I get eaten by lion, I come back as lion -shit”.
Mackintosh suggests that the PRI will actually write guidelines for teachers and refuse to accredit teachers who use PCDs as a vehicle for their religion. This is an excellent initiative, and the first case I know of where an accreditation body is making such a ruling.
“In short, I plead for all permaculture teachers to leave their subjective beliefs at the door when they begin to teach”.
The problem is, where to draw the line, and my own view is, this issue cuts much deeper than just guidelines for teachers. For a start, I would take issue with Mackintosh’s own view of spirituality, which he takes pains to defend:
I want to clearly express that I have nothing against spirituality — indeed, it is clear that mankind’s lack of spiritual development is a central cause of our modern woes. Spirituality goes beyond hedonism and living for the moment, and becomes inclusive of concepts of altruism and objectivity and can lift a man above his baser instincts to drive him to become a force for good in the world. Man’s spirituality grants him the ability to think beyond necessity, beyond desire, so he can make decisions based on principle.
What is needed here is a definition- what, exactly, is “spirituality”? I would argue that for most people it means something essentially “religious”- not necessarily in the formal sense of an established Church, but definitely in the sense of unsubstantiated beliefs in Another Realm- the Spiritual Realm- which in some important way transcends this mortal realm, but which we can interact with in meaningful ways- indeed, I would suggest that spiritual beliefs always claim to be over and above, more important than this realm- and often map on in some important ways onto the Judeo-Christian myth of a Fall from the garden of Eden- in other words, New Age spirituality tends to point to a Higher World that transcends the Fallen, sullied and sinful material world- which is where we actually do, say, permaculture design.
What does Mackintosh mean by the statement it is clear that mankind’s lack of spiritual development is a central cause of our modern woes.? What is “spiritual development”? and why should it have contributed to our woes? What woes, exactly?
This kind of viewpoint is reflected in some of the (well over 100) comments below the article. Many agree that spirituality should not be mixed in with PCDs but also expressed spiritual views themselves; while a few seemed to feel that spirituality and permaculture are intertwined, that they are really part of the same thing, that it is not practical to try to separate them.
Permaculture was created in 1970 by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a system of sustainable landscape design, with an emphasis on learning from nature, cycling energy and nutrient flows, diversity, edge, polycultures and perennial food crops. Although Mollison used to joke that Permaculture is “revolution disguised as organic gardening” over time it became much broader than just landscape design, and began to embrace “softer” areas, such as community and personal development.
Some of the history of this is described in the book Living Lightly: Travels in Post-Consumer Society by Walter Schwarz. Schwarz visited Crystal Waters Eco-village in Australia, which had been designed by architect and permaculture designer Max Lindegger
As the eco-villagers moved in and the community developed, new ideas emerged about how permaculture was to be taught, and some people felt there were limitations in the physical lay-out of the village that did not perhaps fully facilitate the development of an integral community. This resulted in 1994 the publication of, The Manual for Teaching Permaculture Creatively. by Robin Clayfield and Skye. A rejection of traditional “chalk and talk” methods of teaching, this new approach aimed to focus on more participative processes in teaching permaculture design, bringing out the best in the students, as well as attempting to break down the division between students and teachers.
While this might have pioneered a more fluid and accessible teaching technique, it may also have begin to open the door to a greater emphasis on permaculture as “personal development” which then lead onto all manner of woo and spirituality.
This wider reach was formalised in 2003 with the publication of David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability in which he presented the Permaculture Flower, which covered 7 Domains of permaculture Activity, which, in addition to the traditional areas of “Earth Care and Nature Stewardship”, “Tools and Technology” and “The Built Environment” included so-called “invisible structures” of “Land Governance and Community Tenure” and “Health and Spiritual Well-Being”. A summary of the Ethics and Principles can be read here.
Permaculture had always included three ethics which were really the starting point of the approach, singling it out from purely utilitarian systems of design: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares. It was this People Care aspect that seems to have gained in significance over the years, and it is through this ethic that I think many people see as the entry route for spirituality.
Holmgren addresses the issue of spirituality in permaculture early in the book:
Although permaculture can be reasonably seen as essentially materialist and scientific, it depends on an ecological perspective. Spiritual beliefs about a higher purpose in nature have been universal and defining features in all cultures before scientific rationalism. We ignore this aspect of sustainable cultures at our peril.
I think Holmgren is making a couple of logical fallacies here. Firstly, it is not clear to me that earlier cultures were actually “sustainable”- even though it may look that way to us because their way of life remained stable for long periods of time. Their populations were small and the available land to migrate into was almost inexhaustible- at least for thousands of years. But they did have an impact, perhaps more than we would like to think, and eventually, incrementally, over-hunting and other impacts- hunting was done in many cases by burning the understorey of the forest to flush out game- may have played a contributory role in nudging us towards domestication of plants and animals and the development of agriculture.
We may have been, as Richard Leakey suggests in The Sixth Extinction been responsible to wiping out all the mega-fauna of the Americas as we migrated down through that continent, and possibly, earlier still, may even had played a foul hand in the extermination of our cousins the Neanderthals.
In any case it would take some fairly convincing evidence that our animistic superstitions represented some kind of higher spiritual/ecological consciousness- I consider this to be a myth.
But Holmgren continues:
The more we understand the world through the lens of system thinking and ecology, the more we see the wisdom in spiritual perspectives and traditions. The same process has happened in the filed of psychology, especially Jungian psychology. Many thinkers and writers have suggested that the most progressive aspects of science are moving towards a union with the universal aspects of spiritual belief. Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science, although generally ignored, is a past attempt at union that has since borne some practical fruits in the fields of education (Waldorf schools) and agriculture (biodynamics).
This appears to be an allusion to the New Age belief that science and spiritual beliefs are somehow merging with the New Sciences of Quantum physics- something that is not however subscribed to by quantum scientists.
Neither Jungian psychology nor Steiner’s Anthroposophy have any basis in science. For Holmgren to cite Steiner as being on some sort of vanguard of this supposed union is a serious mistake. Steiner was a pure mystic whos whacky beliefs were not in any way connected to science- he apparently just made the whole lot up from his not inconsiderable imaginative powers. His beliefs were however of their time and place, and, based as they were on a system of racist karma, they were adopted by some high-ranking members of the Nazi party who saw an affinity between Steiner and their own occult views of Blut und Boden, the esoteric link between the chosen race and the Fatherland.
The Nazis were the first to use Biodynamics on a wide scale- a magical system based on astrology,
rejecting it only later more from a sense of it competing with their own ideology, and more materialistic influences pushing for industrialisation, than anything else.
I find Biodynamics a source of fascination amongst many permaculture students- it seems to nearly always crop up, and claims a strong loyalty from its followers, who strongly resist any attempt to deconstruct it.
But are these values ones that permaculture wants in any way to support or embrace?
Holmgren goes on:
Permaculture attracts many raised in a culture of scientific rationalism because its holism does not depend on a spiritual dimension. For others, permaculture reinforces their spiritual beliefs, even if these are simply a basic animism that recognises the earth is alive and, in some unknowable way, conscious. For most people on the planet, the spiritual and rational still coexist in some fashion. Can we really imagine a sustainable world without spiritual life in some form?
As an atheist and secularist, I would say emphatically, “Yes”- in fact- leaving aside what we might actually mean by “sustainable” (a word rarely defined) that this is the only world worth hoping for- one based on rational and secular values and not influenced too much if at all by people who believe in fairies.
Holmgren then goes on to finish the section with a quite contradictory passage in which he proclaims he is proud of his atheist upbringing, yet feels himself being drawn towards a spiritual awareness… and yet “for the present, my own interpretation of the ethical principles of permaculture rests firmly on rational and humanist foundations”.
One might begin to wonder just how firm those foundations really are, especially since Holmgren now appears in a recent film, Anima Mundi, alongside Stephen Harding (Holistic Science in Schumacher), John Seed (Deep Ecology- an Earth religion), 9-11 conspiracy theorist Mike Ruppert and purveyor of Anthroposophical medicine Dr Mark O’Meadhra.
I have not seen the movie but the clip on the website and the cast imply Holmgren has aligned permaculture unequivocally with New Age religion and a motley crew of dubious quacks and snake-oil salesmen.
The view that lack of spiritual development is one of our main problems is very prominent in the wider environmental movement, and also strongly expressed in Deep Ecology for example, an earth Religion which is closely connected to Permaculture. Along with Anthroposophy this belief advocates an anti-modernist, anti-technology agenda, that holds that when we lost our connection to the Earth and consequently our spiritual path, we embarked on a path of environmental destruction, loss of community and Sense of Belonging, materialism, consumerism, that lead eventually to where we are today, with meaningless empty lives governed by Twitter and Reality TV.
The Path back, we are told, is to adopt a simpler way of life in harmony with Nature’s cycles. A good way to do this is to take cheap flights to attend Permaculture courses in natural, unspoilt places where the people still live in harmony with Nature.
An alternative view of course is that it is only the emergence of science and rationality that have brought us out of the dark Ages of superstition and religion, and that the hard-won values of the Enlightenment are amongst humanities crowning achievements. According to this narrative, Permaculture and green movement are products of the modern, industrial world, not responses to it.
This is best explained by looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model, which does in fact feature on the curriculum of many permaculture courses; rather than being a system that copies traditional knowledge, permaculture is best seen as something that can be made use of once people’s basic needs are met, something that has only really happened with the advent of industrialization.
Before then, most people lived rather precarious and short lives, often under the psychological stress of belief in witches and devils and accompanying unappetizing practices which at times included cannibalism, human sacrifice, bride price and tribal warfare.
Therein lies the difficulty with this issue. It is not surprising that permaculture has become infected with New Age beliefs of all kinds, including Biodynamics and all manner of alternative medicine and spiritual practices, because it has emerged clearly as part of an anti-modernist agenda. How can it embrace science when science is seen to represent a way of thinking and an approach to reality which is the fundamental cause of our problems? How can we even have a rational discussion about this when rationality itself is rejected as the Devil’s work?
The comment thread under Mackintosh’s article contains several encouraging comments from those who are aware that this is a serious issue for permaculture; but it also includes comments from those who have no understanding of the scientific method. Anyone who has crossed swords with a homeopath will know the script: science is just another belief system, just another religion.
Permaculture does have a lot to offer the landscape designer who wants to use energy efficient methods and grow food, build houses and protect soil. But unless the permaculture movement as a whole rejects these corrosive elements of “spirituality” and gets over the basic issue of epistemology regarding science and how real knowledge is acquired it will likely be more a malevolent influence than a progressive one, and will never live up to its loft aspirations of making the world a better place.