My interview for 21st Century Permaculture
Stefan Geyer, chair of the UK Permaculture Association, interviewed me recently for his show 21st Century Permaculture.
I met Stefan almost exactly 10 years ago at the European Permaculture Convergeance in Croatia, and I started teaching permaculture at Kinsale College immediately afterwards. Since I am just about to take a years’ career break (to take an MSc in Agroforestry at Bangor, Wales), and Stefan is chairing the International Permaculture Convergeance in London next week, this was a good opportunity to catch up and take stock and discuss what permaculture is and where it is going in the 21st Century.
Having had a chance to listen to it again here are a few reflections on what we discussed:
Stefan always starts his show by asking interviewees to give their definition of permaculture. This is interesting in itself- there are numerous definitions given, none of them really helping. Andy Goldring for example- who was also with us in Croatia and is current CEO of the UK PC Association, gives a very clear account of what it is: Defintion: a Design System based on natural systems for sustainability, which has Ethics and Design Principles. This is probably close to what I would have said 10 years ago- or up to just 5 years ago- but the problem is, none of this tells us what it actually is or how to do it:
The Ethics of Permaculture are generally given as “Earth Care” “People Care” and “Fair Shares”. OK- but does this tell us how to behave, or even how to garden? Does it tell us whether to use GMOs or not? Does it tell us whether local food is better than global trade? One person’s Earth Care is another’s Eco-cide. “People Care” sounds completely wooley, and in terms of how it is mainly delivered through PC courses, it is.
This blog post by a person unknown on the UK PC Association website will not enlighten you as to what it is, and in fact is the most garbled and confused piece of writing I have read about anything in a long time:
Next, reality is extremely complex and intimidating. Food/health scares (the evils of sugar, study links red meat to cancer), violence, toxic products and climate change – to name but a few – are never off the agenda. Your confidence is shaken, perhaps you have been personally affected by these stories. And there are always people behind each story. Is caring for these people, caring for ‘them’, possible?
Say what? Apart from learning that Blair and Bush are “not the men for the job” it reads more like someone’s untrammelled flow of consciousness. What can climate change mean for People Care- build windmills and cut back, even as a billion or two People do not yet have access to electricity? Or take the “Ecomodernist” approach of pushing towards a High Energy Planet with advanced nuclear reactors? Permaculture cannot in itself tell us which is the best way to care for either people or planet- yet there are strong but hidden assumptions that this could not involve nuclear power or fracking for natural gas.
At the forthcoming Convergeance Looby Macnamara is giving a workshop on “Personal Permaculture”. She is also the author of the main text on the subject, “People and Permaculture”. Drawing on Deep Ecology aswell as Ken Wilbur’s “Integral” approach, along with many other strands of personal self-help and psychology, this work again tells us nothing specific: zero data or analysis on the real world of concrete choices, trade-offs and paradoxes, while she occasionally sails dangerously close to the rocky shores of woo:
In the 20 years since Rod Everett has been practising and teaching permaculture he has only visited the doctor a few times, mainly to get a diagnosis of symptoms. Homeopathy, herbs , pressure points and specific exercises have helped to balance his body. He believes everyone can unlock their potential for healing. We can enable ourselves as healers by knowing the resources we have internally available to us, and exploring the gift of healing.
If you are looking for an example of Bad permaculture, there you go, right there. This is outright quackery being advocated here- how is that People Care in any rational sense? Homeopathy and medicine-by-anecdote is very harmful to people. If I were asked to write a People Care book I would have to start with critical thinking and how to search for evidence: the crucial first step to make a better world has to be better information and better training in how to interpret such information. Alas, I see no evidence that Permaculture can deliver this.
Similarly, the Permaculture Principles- which exist in different forms- might be a useful thinking tool for a beginner designer- “Let each element in the design have more than one function” is useful, but not specific to Permaculture- all good functional design would include multi-functional elements. For the most part, the PC Principles are just vague aphorisms, and indeed Holmgren, when he re-wrote them some years ago, linked each one with a traditional proverb: “A stitch in time saves nine” “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” “Make hay while the sun shines” and so on- invoking the common sense wisdom of our fore-father’s in the homely life on the farms of yesteryear. Well, we already have the proverbs- what does permaculture add to that? Again, nothing specific- but the two of main influences on Holmgren- Steiner and Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) tell us all we need to know: Permaculture is an ideological movement rooted in the much broader anti-modernist and retro-romantic movements that have been around since the beginning of the modern era.
This is why I gave my definition of permaculture as being a political and ideological movement rather than a system of design. Yes, there is agroforestry, and that is a real thing; but agroforestry doesn’t claim to have a “whole systems approach” which by defintion means it encompasses an entirely new way of doing everything– including something as nebulous as “people care”. You can do agroforestry without claiming that all agriculture must be converted to such systems in order to save the planet, and without being anti-GMO and anti- “monoculture”- which doesnt mean what people think it means, or what they learn it means on most permaculture courses.
That it claims to be a unique “holistic” design system is anyway belied by the other frequently cited definition of permaculture- that it is “Revolution disguised as Organic Gardening.” This is closer to the truth- a regressive and ultra-conservative political movement, full of New Age woo and quackery, that pretends to be about gardening- but -note- *Organic Gardening*, not complex polycultures or forest gardens with tree crops and perennial understory’s “Designed by Nature”. Very few people have created such gardens, and Martin Crawford’s successful plantation of walnuts and sweet chestnuts in Devon is essentially a true monoculture (you cannot rotate nut trees!), the grass tightly mowed beneath to ensure that the nuts can actually be collected. Yes, his nearby forest garden is fantastically diverse, full of unusual greens and fruit, but this cannot replace broadscale grains produced in ever-increasing yields by Big Ag.
The vast majority of permaculture course graduates will not know this however, they will leave instead convinced they can replace the evils of modern agriculture with forest gardens full of Gingkos and Turkish Rocket without ever having to have compared yields. Permies dont do numbers.
And after all that, mainly they will go forth and do normal Organic gardens with rows of carrots and broccoli. This is the reality of permaculture in the real world, as practiced by thousands of design course graduates: sure, fruit and nut trees, but mainly, for the most part, just annual veg.
John Seymour would be proud- in truth, there is little to distinguish anything you will find in permaculture- including pig tractors!- from what he was writing about in the self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s. Permaculture is basically that plus a load of New Age faff and Dark Green political activism.
Undeterred by my “sharp and bitter” critiques of the movement, Stefan was keen to defend it, largely on the basis that getting out into Nature from the city is really good and anything that can help people experience this has got to be good. Ah, but that is exactly how cults work- there are thousands of ways people can get out into nature, from wildlife and hiking groups, to family fun days and camping holidays. What does permaculture have to offer that is extra? See above- the ideology- that modern life is rubbish and humans are bad and destroying the environment, and that we need an entirely new World Order, a complete system overhall, one that Permaculture can offer and that will make everything Whole and Nice and Pure again.
How many permaculture course invite people to consider that we need technology to protect ourselves from Nature? That being materially wealthy in an industrial society allows us to enjoy the natural world far more, without being at its mercy, either from being eaten by a bear or starving to death? How many even learn enough about history and ecology to understand that in most of the world, what passes for natural beauty has been almost entirely re-written by the hand of Man?
Stefan said interestingly that he had met representatives from nearly every position on my 50 Shades of Green spectrum at permaculture courses over the years. He could be right, but they would hardly be evenly spread: though regrettably I lack the data to prove it, the overwhelming majority of people in the permaculture world would sing to the same hymn sheet: anti-GMO, anti-Big Ag, anti-fracking, anti-nuclear; pro-Organic, pro-alternative medicine, and anti-capitalist; a smaller percentage but still significant would be anti-science and adopt varying degrees of New Age beliefs, Biodynamics practices, faeries, magic and astrology or whatever you are having yourself. Permaculture is a bit of a free-for-all in that sense, but since it is part of the broader Food Sovereignty movement, and increasingly political in tone, I do not think Stefan is correct to say that GMO advocates for example are represented in permaculture.
I should clarify one point that I made in the interview: I said the “overwhelming majority” of my students were anti-GMO. In fact this is an exaggeration- there was a much wider spectrum of views amongst students than that, although it would still be true to say I think that the majority of those coming to the course would start with anti- views or at least suspicions of.
One girl who came for an interview said she wanted to help solve some of the many problems in the world. “Which ones?” I asked. “Monsanto’s Terminator seeds” she shot back. I assured her that these had never been used (although it might solve other issues if they were). “They must be!” she replied.
On another occasion, after a class in which I had given some scientific references on the subject of genetic engineering, I was pressed into having a class meeting, as some of the students had issues with the way I was delivering the course. Very reluctantly, I agreed. We sat in a circle, some 20 or so of the class, and I began, “So it appears that some of you feel my classes are biased. Is that what people think?”
About 7 or 8 hands went up and one by one each and every one of them told the class that they did not think I was biased, that they found the classes stimulating and informative, that they appreciated what I was doing. Not a single one of the Dark Green students was prepared to openly criticize me to the group.
This was one of the highlights of my years teaching permaculture, and if any of those who supported me on that day are reading this now, I salute you.
The political -and philosophical- stance of permaculture is best expressed in this recent superb post by Tamar Haspel:
There’s an unbreachable divide between advocates of modern conventional agriculture and, essentially, everyone else, from the mainstream (organic, local, anti-GMO) to the less-so (biodynamics, permaculture, agroforestry). The parties are entrenched, the tone is partisan. But I think we ought to be able to get along, because all hard-core advocates of this or that food philosophy have two things in common: They’re paying attention, and they’re wrong.
I hope you enjoyed the interview, as I did, and I would like to give a big thanks to Stefan who did a great job, and especially for having the open mindedness to interview such a Permaculture Pariah!