Feedback on the Cult of Perma

My last post generated a couple of interesting responses from within the permaculture community.
Most notably on Twitter, Rafter Sass Ferguson drew my attention to him with this odd comment:

I thought this odd, since on his own website Liberation Ecology Ferguson states

I’m Rafter Sass Ferguson, and I do agroecology, political ecology, and permaculture.

which confirms at least one of my main points, that permaculture is a political ideology and movement rather than a science. Ferguson responded that “for me, unlike you, “political” and “social movement” are not naive epithets or kneejerk dismissals.” – but his next tweet seemed even more bizarre:

Yet Ferguson is committed to gaining scientific credibility for permaculture- the same science that he blithely accuses me of “fetishising.” In fact, he has just had a paper called Permaculture for Agroecology accepted by the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. One of the main themes of this interesting paper, which reviews three decades of permaculture in the academic literature, is the uneasy relationship between permaculture and science. Indeed, Ferguson covers many of the same points that I do:

The manuscript follows a stratified definition of permaculture as design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement.

Ferguson refers to the “agro-ecological transition”, by which I presume he means a political shift away from large-scale industrial agriculture towards a perhaps socialist movement of smallholders and small farmers as exemplified by La Via Campesina.

In his paper, he quickly identifies that the lack of a clear definition for permaculture is one of the main stumbling blocks:

the difficulty of providing a clear and distinguishing description of permaculture can cause confusion and hinder rigorous and systematic discussion.

He goes onto note that

While permaculture has a distinctive description of the techniques for which it advocates, few if any of those techniques originated from within the permaculture milieu. Permaculture practices are often adopted from or inspired by traditional agroecological systems, as in the case of tropical home gardens and the permaculture “food forest” (Mollison and Holmgren 1978).


even suggesting that

The “herb spiral,” a mound garden design proposed by Mollison for the production of culinary herbs, may be the only practice to have emerged from the permaculture movement itself (Mollison 1988).


In other words, “permaculture”- as a land-use design system- is almost indistinguishable from agro-ecology, and yet Ferguson seems determined to nevertheless carve out a distinctive niche for it as one approach to agro-ecology. While acknowledging that permaculturalists frequently exaggerate yields from their preferred polycultures, and tend to ignore the challenges (such as far more labour requirements) of establishing complex systems, he does not address in the paper (or elsewhere that I have found) the issue of lower yields in some agro-ecological systems.

He discusses at length much of the same issues that I cover, also quoting Chalker-Scott with regard to plant guilds and invasive species:

In response to internal and external criticism from native plant advocates over the extreme versions of this position (Grayson 2003; Holmgren 2004; Hemenway 2009), many permaculturists have moderated their views on species selection and regard nativity as an important consideration alongside functional criteria (Jacke and Toensmeier 2005; Hemenway 2009). Conflicts on this topic continue, however (Gehron and Webster 2012).

Ferguson notes that permaculture has been largely isolated from main-stream science, with obvious consequences:

The permaculture literature assigns the blame for this isolation on the inability of scientists and institutions to comprehend or appreciate the radical proposals put forth by permaculture…
there are cumulative effects from decades of relative isolation that go beyond the lack of research on permaculture systems. These include the lack of awareness, in the perma- culture literature, of contemporary developments in relevant science, the accompanying persistence of idiosyncratic or misleading terminology, and the potential for influence of pseudo-scientific theories. The idiosyncratic use of scientific and scientific-sounding terms, together with permaculture’s heterodox stance on issues such as species selection, has persuaded some writers to label permaculture as a pseudo- science (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In short, Ferguson largely agrees with the points that I have made, making his refusal to engage with me- despite initiating the twitter exchange himself- all the odder.

Ferguson has also discussed the definition of permaculture on a couple of recent blogposts, debating Toby Hemenway’s article (which I quoted at the start of my own post). Hemenway himself joins in the comments:

I have never argued that it is a design science. It’s not a science, because we rely on pragmatic “does it work or not?” methods far more than on a scientific search for falsification or mechanism. And I don’t think of it as a discipline. Disciplines have boundaries, and permaculture is highly inter-disciplinary. I find it most useful—meaning most productive of insight, guidance toward valuable work, and having broadest application—to think of it as a design approach, which, because it links and transcends disciplinary boundaries, can be used to solve virtually any challenge we’re facing. “Approach” is not a great word, but it’s the best I have been able to come up with. Permaculture is a pattern of strategy development for arriving at sustainable solutions to almost any problem.

Right- so it is not a science, just anecdotal, which means it is undoubtedly making a lot of mistakes and is of limited use in the first place; but as a “design approach” permaculture can solve all our problems! “Cult” flashes large in my minds’ eye when I hear such grandiose claims- this is surely a self-fulfilling prophecy in which any “solution” (as if we can even agree on what constitutes such) to any problem can be retrospectively identified as being “permaculture”.

(See also this comment under The Cult of Perma: “Permaculture is an integrated response to how best to be.” And how exactly is that, and how do we know it is the best?)

The discussion goes back and forth as to whether permaculture is a “movement” or just a design practice; Ferguson is adamant it should be explicitly seen as a movement and hence inherently political- the self-reliant community of small-farmer agro-ecologist collectives juxtaposed with large-scale industrial corporate agribusiness- while Hemenway obviously disagrees (though not, as I argued in my first post, particularly coherently).

One commentator points out that

Science is not based in ethics; Permaculture is. Permaculture is not only a design science.

These ethics- “Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares” – are probably the most vague part of the whole permacultural literature, quite abstract and undefined. “Earth Care” and “People Care” are clearly in conflict with each other in practically every environmental issue you could name, once you buy into Mollison’s initial premise that society is in over-shoot and the only way out is a radical change of direction, as indicated by permaculture. For example, fracking for shale gas will look after people by giving them cheap energy, but at some environmental (hugely exaggerated) cost;
industrial farming has liberated billions from the drudgery of peasant agriculture, but at a cost of loss of biodiversity and pollution, and the expense of non-renewable fossil fuels.

Predictably, despite paying lip-service to science and its value for giving credence to permaculture, Ferguson is more than happy to spread pseudo-scientific misinformation about GMOs:

How I wonder does he equate the wooly permaculture “ethic” of People Care with his support for a movement dedicated to lying about health risks even when this hinders the development of humanitarian projects such as Golden Rice, a biofortified rice variety which could save millions from blindness and death, but which is fiercely opposed by most of the environmental movement?

This is the contradiction at the heart of all environmentalism, at least the Dark Green type, which I think clearly includes permaculture: People Care very often conflicts with Earth Care. I have never seen this obvious issue discussed anywhere within the permaculture community, and until it is confronted, permaculture will remain a misanthropic cult.


8 thoughts on “Feedback on the Cult of Perma

  1. Aloha~ A bit of love here to dissolve your poisonous position. Permaculture is the most inspiring design system and movement that brings people together, and brings Hope where there was none. You rail against Permaculture. I am hearing the reality of Permaculture is too vast for your understanding, and your shiny mind. No problem. Just plain ridiculous. Please see GREENING the DESERT, a 5-minute video, and get on with encouraging this wisdom taking hold everywhere it can now. Your ranting and “dis-missives” are antagonistic to the Heart of Permaculture, which could invite you into a world of abundance and beauty, but you’re too busy “hating.” Science has its place. Permaculture is proven. Permaculture is holistic and embodies Nature’s wisdom through principles, ethics and co-creativity. And, fun! Permaculture is very much about Care of the Earth AND Care of the People. I have witnessed & participated in ecovillages, homes, and farms all over the world, as well as indigenous cultures that live in harmony and balance, with any and every size home, or community, with the resilience and stability of an ecosystem. The fact that you mention fracking and Permaculture together is absurd. Anything that is invasive, extractive and can potentially cause extremely disastrous effects on human health and the earth is the “suicidal paradigm,” and not Permaculture. Care of the Earth and Care of the People is not optional, it is our guide. You write from the viewpoint of the suicidal paradigm as it spits and stutters to its demise. The nice thing is, when Permaculture is more fully established on earth, you will be enjoying great company, artistic expression in full bloom, regenerative foods, shelter, energy and waste-as-resource, and all your tiny, tiny, sad, sad thinking and writing will be forgotten, because you, too, will have been invited to enjoy the fun, and it is irresistible to those who care about life on earth being inclusive, creative and flourishing. Just my Truth. Hoping it sets you free. Aloha, Peace & Blessings, Claire

    • Thanks Claire, well I am arguing PC is like a Cult, you seem to have elevated it to the stature of Religion! Well done. Yes I like Greening the Desert, fantastic work; but my point is, is it “permaculture” or just sensible smart passive design/engineering (see Peter Harper’s articles I reference in the first post).

      Permaculture is holistic and embodies Nature’s wisdom through principles, ethics and co-creativity

      No, see Harper again- “design based on Nature” makes no sense. This is where it becomes a New Age Earth Religion. Humans create abundance through their technology, which allows us to escape the shackles of “Nature” which cares not a wit for us. Passive design is really cool and smart where applicable, and can play an important role in landscape restoration, but wont do much on its own in terms of food production for us. Remember, we cannot go back to being hunter-gatherers, and permaculture is not about that anyway- population is several billion now, that takes industrial ag to feed us, not just a bit of mulching.

      Anything that is invasive, extractive and can potentially cause extremely disastrous effects on human health and the earth is the “suicidal paradigm,” and not Permaculture.

      Right- so your computer is made from locally grown biodynamic hemp, right? LOL. This is the thing- people who espouse what you do are generally wealthy westerners with high-energy life-styles who have no intention of giving up their energy slaves. It’s a rather narcissistic elitist philosophy imo. Thanks for inviting me to join in the fun though, and good luck!

  2. Hi Graham, second time for me here, commenting your interesting blog. My name is Luca Denti from Italy. I work as agronomist and PC designer. I’m member of directive of Italian Academy of Permaculture. I wanna say thank you for you critical point of view of this important matter. I am of the opinion that we need A LOT this kind of self-analysis work out. If you allow me, I could share the closest experience of Italy, ’cause we are debating so much, in this period, about “words” and “meanings”.

    We have to start from a point:
    PC is not a science. It is a design strategy.
    Into this strategy we could use every sustainable science as a tool. I would say that Landscape Planning (a declination of Architecture) isn’t a science as well. Also traditional Architecture too is not a science. Structure (building) stress surely it is Applied Physics but architecture in toto… No.
    We could say that Economics isn’t even science at all. Everything in economics is arguable. Imagine a rugby match between Keynesians vs Monetarists! Some sort of Monty Python sketch indeed!

    PC is the capacity of design productive ecosystems.
    It acts in a holistic way. We say holistic about a thing, normally a living one, that’s not just the sum of of its constituent elements.
    For instance, Frankenstein is a bad sum of human pieces, not a human being. He knews that was not a life, poor creature!
    When a discipline is a holistic one, it could be impossible or very difficult forcing it, for simplicity sake, under a label, using just one adjective, strong enough to keep its meaning.

    We are working a lot to make complex systems, breeding methods in neural nets, in a bionic way, learning from nature. If you need a durable and resilient system, you have to interbreed and drop straight solutions to gain hybrid, complex ones. You have to find solutions with in mind keywords as “ergonomics”, “proxemics”, “efficiency”.

    Ok, you could say: “I can use ‘Agro-Ecology’ for that”, but…
    Permanent Agriculture is a couple of older words than agro-ecology. Agronomist Franklin Hiram King used in second half of nineteenth century and in 1911, some relative of him, published posthumously “Farmers of forty Centuries: On Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan”. Obviously a lucky meeting between east and west. Breeding.
    Goethe could be grateful.
    Later, another pseudo-scientist… I mean, an economist and, yeah, geographer named Joseph Russel Smith, published in 1929 “Three crops: a permanent agriculture”.

    Agro-ecology, then, is not a science. Is a design strategy too. AE try to put some ecology into agriculture. PC try to put some agriculture in ecology.
    In PC we start to design (we try to make Projects) and try to reach a self-sufficient, self-sustainable and durable system. We put the seed, an artificial one (and to do this we need to be very humble) and reach the same goal of Fukuoka wanted, but starting from a different point. We have to understand WHEN the project is over, and when we have to leave the land to Nature, ’cause the real complexity is a matter of Nature. Could be not a human one.

    Permaculture is a aussie acronym that is based on the meaning of Permanent Agriculture.
    Esalen people, located in Big Sur, California, is responsible to create the “The Outer Layer”, namely the “social vision of permaculture”, the “movement”, the “permanent culture”.
    This outer layer grew big in years, and ok. This is cool.
    Fact is that many people thinks PC is definitely just this outer layer.
    Yeah, people living fast, and look also faster.
    PC asks to observe a bit more deeply on complex things with complex history.

    So… “Modern” PC started its “project” in in the seventies and now is growing complex, like an ecosystem has to do.
    This is a new way that need some new study.
    For that, I appreciate your attempt to not leave dropping everything in easy, didactic explanations or, unfortunately, in bad faith.



    • Hi Luca thanks for commenting and I really appreciate your positive approach to constructive criticism!
      I have read King and Smith, Fukuoka also. Their work doesnt is of historical interest, but doesnt really tell us anything useful for design or agriculture today. Agroforestry has a role to play of course, but cannot replace modern industrial agriculture. Fukuoka is an idealogue with no evidence or data to back up his bizarre claims. He would be a classic example of pseudoscience- very popular amongst permaculturalists!
      So I dont see you add anything to the discussion really- we still have no definition of “permaculture” nor do we know what anyone means by “holistic”- usually this just means good design, which of course is found everywhere (yes there is bad also!) and often is much better than what the permaculture community has to offer!

  3. Hi Graham,
    I’ve leaved in my comment at least two definition of permaculture.
    Maybe, the fact is that any definition could satisfy you.
    I suspect you would replace the PC religion with the Anti-PC religion.
    For me totally useless.
    Ok it’s useful to push friendly people posting on your blog. 😉

    Normally I enter in technical debate with people that have same language and similar background. But you are a sociologist, not a technician and could be boring.
    Obviously, if you want some academic, university publication to explain something you don’t understand or, probably, don’t know, I could help you.
    Just ask.

    If not… You have to launch into arduous task of explain if everything you read about PC is pseudo-scientific, or just a little amount, or whatever and why. You have to know a lot on agriculture. Could you? This exercise could be good, so we can see if, against your opinion, there is some scientific explanation for any particular case.

    You talked about low level designs in PC community. Well, maybe you have travelled a lot and know every single PC community. But I am pretty sure it is just your mental projection.
    Simply you THINK that everything in PC community is pseudo-something.
    Well, this is a pseudo fact. Just your idea.

    For instance in our group we are full of agronomists, physicists, architects, engineers,
    geographers. Many PhD degrees. We have also philosophers and sociologists, yeah. Very open minded people.
    Also farmers. People that have to live with land-work and who know agriculture politics in Eu. Just regular members are 250. With more than a thousand of satellite aficionados. I think we know which have a scientific value and which not.
    And, surprise, we are all into PC.

    Do you need strictly boundaries of design? Ok. But first you have to make me an example of another design discipline with strictly boundaries.
    This just to simplify the talk of previous post (maybe seemed too cryptic).

    I think I’d say I have my style of design.
    And… For everything I do I can make an academic publication to share why, how, in which case, the intervention work. I used to do that at university.
    I think many others have different style, but working the same.
    Nature is complex and offer many ways.
    You, know… This happens when boundaries are not so strict: everyone could express style in design.

    Do ya know Cuba crisis? Sure. You are a traveller not just a reader.
    All the industrial agriculture goes down. Just too much costs to deal with. And PC give some good hand to change situation. Delocalization and recreation of trade chains.
    In Europe now is hardcore slump. Industrial agriculture is kept by very big company but with so big costs. And I want not to talk about environmental costs. They don’t care. Just money.
    Now for small and medium size farms (the big part in EU, and the heart of business) the keyword is, again, delocalization. Zero Km. “Short chain”. And focusing on quality against amount of production, linked to “terroir”, land.
    In this situation PC is growing influence, ’cause we need a totally different system. A new thing. We have made links with public administrations, professional associations, agriculture consortia, public agencies to protect the environment, etc.
    And we have to prove everything:
    from strategies to final yields, from environmental gains (and not costs) to social ones.
    A rehabilitation of economics and landscape, redrawing the human habitat. Not just “blah blah blah”.
    We do that because we have forced to do. Survival. At every level.
    This is permaculture, dude. If you doesn’t like the name, call it “Josephine”.

  4. Hi Graham, thank you for all of your work on these issues. I am a skeptic that is new to the PC field and it’s been great to see that there people who here raising these very important questions. I have encountered plenty of New Age religion, pseudoscience, and conspiratorial thinking in these circles and agree that it is holding back the spread of the positive aspects of PC (or agro-ecology, whatever you want to call it). I do hope that people like Rafter build up quantitative data on PC, regardless of whether the scientific community would agree with all his claims. Anyway, keep up the great work!

  5. What would be your specific criticism of Rafter’s link on GMO’s? “ #GM”

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