The Cult of Perma

Most thinking people would agree that we have arrived at final and irrevocable decisions that will abolish or sustain life on earth. We can either ignore the madness of uncontrolled industrial growth and defence spending that is in small bites, or larger catastrophes, eroding life forms every day, or take the path to life and survival.

-Bill Mollison Permaculture- A Designers’ Manual 1988

Permaculture is notoriously hard to define. A recent survey shows that people simultaneously believe it is a design approach, a philosophy, a movement, and a set of practices. This broad and contradiction-laden brush doesn’t just make permaculture hard to describe. It can be off-putting, too. Let’s say you first encounter permaculture as a potent method of food production and are just starting to grasp that it is more than that, when someone tells you that it also includes goddess spirituality, and anti-GMO activism, and barefoot living. What would you make of that?

-Toby Hemenway What Permaculture Isn’t- and Is

Permies just don’t do numbers

-Peter Harper The Big Rock Candy Mountain 2013

Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales wrote a fascinating critique of the permaculture movement earlier this year which appeared in The Land magazine. This was a follow-up to an earlier article from 1997 called Cleaning out the Stables.

What is significant about Harper is that he is an insider:

I have been in the ‘alternative’ tribe all my life. I am acquainted with the permaculture literature, did the 72-hour course nearly 20 years ago, contributed to the Permaculture Teachers’ Handbook, and personally know many of the luminaries of the movement.

Indeed, Harper already took a very different view from the majority of permaculture practitioners in the Teachers Handbook by pointing out that, if your goal was reducing dependency on fossil fuels- one of the core aims of the general sustainability movement- you would do better to focus on insulation and getting rid of the car rather than the main preoccupation of growing one’s own food, which accounts for a relatively small proportion of our carbon footprint.

So what is Permaculture then?

As should be clear from the above quote from the beginning of  Bill Mollison’s seminal Designer’s Manual, “Permaculture”- a corruption of “Permanent Agri-Culture” – came in on the back of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and the 1972 Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. The world is on an unsustainable path which can only end badly unless we radically change direction. Peak Oil and Climate change, combined with loss of topsoil, fresh water and biodiversity, will mean imminent doom for humanity and the biosphere unless we revert to a much simpler life-style, running only off the ambient solar interest that accumulates through biological processes each day, rather than delving ever deeper into the Earth’s precious capital stores of fossil energy and other non-renewable resources. I think it is critical to understand this: without a Malthussian understanding of the world and a deeply conservative ethic that resists economic development and idealizes both the natural and the traditional, permaculture could never have come into existence.

Farming in particular was deemed to be in need of change. Rather than exterminating the forests and using chemical fertlisers and waging war on Nature with pesticides to grow our food, Permaculture would provide a design system that allowed us how to do things more in tune with natural rhythms and lead us to a gentler and more sustainable way of life. By closely observing natural eco-systems, in particular forests, we would be able to replace unsustainable resource use with small-scale systems that could sustain us without growth into the future.

Often defined as “sustainable design based on natural systems” it began in the late 1970s as a response to the excesses of industrial agriculture, advocating much more use of trees and perennials planted in polycultures as food crops, use of elements of a system in all their functions, and an emphasis on recycling, water harvesting from rooftops and also from swales, water catchment channels cut along the contours of the land; and “intermediate” technology such as small-scale renewables and low-tech DIY devices which might include for example compost toilets and pedal-powered washing machines.

But here already we hit the first obstacle, not a speed-bump, but a brick wall: Permaculture’s embrace of “design-by-nature” is an oxymoron, and the beginning and end of the concept is based on the naturalistic fallacy, as Harper points out in Cleaning out the Stables:

It is undeniable that natural ecosystems are sustainable: because they are still there after several billion years! Then why don’t we keep them? The answer comes as a great shock to the biologically naive: because in human terms, nearly all natural ecosystems are hopelessly unproductive. They just do not produce the accessible calories (principally as starch) to support large populations. And they don’t produce much accessible protein either: mostly they produce cellulose, largely in the form of wood. So contrary to common PC lore, Nature has to be tweaked to improve productivity, usually a lot, even beyond recognition. And ‘using nature as a model for design’ is not to be taken literally; in fact it is so easily mis-construed that I would withdraw it as a basic design precept for beginners.

Peter Harper’s critiques deal a knock-out punch: permaculture doesnt work. While claiming to be developing pockets of intelligent “natural” design which act as prototypes for an alternative to the modern industrial world, the permaculture movement lives in the fantasy world of Big Rock Candy Mountain:

Harper describes how he was first attracted to permaculture as an elegant system of passive design, constructing systems for rain-water harvesting for example that would get nature to do the work for you with very little maintenance required afterwards. He expected these ideas to be thoroughly tested in the field- as would happen in “normal” engineering- and the good ideas kept and refined while the bad would be thrown out.

OK then, so here we are waiting for all these new ideas and eager to put them to the test. What we got was more like a cult…..

“A cynic would say this lack of quantitative testing is not accidental, because it might reveal that many favourite notions are false, or at least not what they are cracked up to be. Most people attracted to Permaculture are young, dreamy idealists looking for some kind of system to structure their activities and impart meaning. It does not matter much whether things ‘work’ because you are not obliged to depend on them. It is their symbolic value that counts. I have encountered numerous ‘permaculture gardens’ with abysmal levels of productivity that have nevertheless persuaded their creators that they are virtually self-sufficient in food. A few measurements and numbers would quickly dispel this illusion, but Permies just don’t do numbers.

This reluctance of permaculture advocates to actually test any of their ideas along the lines of the scientific method was brought home to me two years ago on a visit to the Bullock Brothers Permaculture Homestead in Washington State.

Permies dont do numbers... Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Permies dont do numbers… Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Addressing a class of permaculture design students, Doug Bullock explained how they were sometimes visited by “researchers” who, inspired by the concepts of alternative farming they were demonstrating, wanted to live with them and study their systems and record inputs and outputs and collect data to “prove” that permaculture worked: Doug waved them away- “we are just not interested- that’s not what it’s about.”

Harper proposes a distinction between “smart permaculture”- which does want testable hypothesis but is more like an “immature academic subject”- and  “cult permaculture” which is more visionary and cultish and includes magic. He suggests that while the charismatic but temperamental Mollison is more in the second camp, the more cerebral and analytic of the two co-founders, David Holmgren, would be in the first. I find this a curious oversight, because as I have shown in my last blog post on permaculture, Mollison is in fact the rational skeptic, with Holmgren the awkward purveyor of metaphysics,  biodynamics and Mother Earth religion, despite their very obvious contrasting styles which might suggest otherwise.

And where, really, is this careful measurement to be found anywhere in permaculture? I am personally skeptical that the “smart” permaculture exists at all: I see little if any data collected by either Holmgren or Harper, at least on agricultural yields for example. Permaculture advocates tree crops, perennials and complex (and hard to maintain) polycultures over the vast monocultures of high-yielding industrial farming. Of the one example of a comparative study being done that Harper refers to, at Schumacher college, he comments

“Too early for results yet, but the permaculture movement should have done all this thirty years ago. Why didn’t it?

but then immediately points out its redundancy (it was surely redundant even 30 years ago):

“From long experience I can tell you what the results will be: the ‘forest garden’ will turn out to be a low-input/low-output system, while the standard horticultural plot will be a high-input/ high-output system.

This is the crux of the matter: any measurement or controlled studies that the permaculture movement might conduct itself will only be re-inventing the wheel and will hardly be able to add anything significant to the body of agronomic science we already have. Just as “alternative medicine” that works is just  called “medicine” so anything that could be shown to work in what is called “permaculture” is simply “good farming”, “good design” or “good engineering”.

A recent article in the UK Permaculture Magazine by Chris Warburton Brown addresses this issue of “permaculture science”, finding not surprisingly that there is very little; but while Brown lists various criteria for what such a science would look like, he fails to define permaculture in any way that could actually lead to testable hypotheses, and seems to see this as more of a problem of science, which is not “holistic” enough for the complexity of permaculture. While he acknowledges that merely quoting results that support your original hypothesis would not pass for science, Brown’s whole article is based on an explicit assumption that permaculture really does have something distinctive to offer, and that this is indeed provable: there is no suggestion that maybe it should be shelved as a failed hypothesis. Brown discusses the difficulty of measuring multiple yields- rather than just comparing the yield of fields of wheat grown in different ways- but resists the obvious conclusion of Harper that anyone familiar with farming would already know- industrial-scale monoculture is much more productive.

“Yields are also subjective” he says: “a grower might consider one sack of fruit from an apple tree with no labour a higher yield than two sacks from a tree that was pruned, cultivated and fed. Inputs of time, labour, fertiliser etc. need to be considered alongside yields.”

What is missing here is obviously that there is a hierarchy of yields. Even one apple might be valued more than a ton of apples if it brings a smile to a child’s face; but what value is that smile as a “yield” if the child goes to bed hungry? If you need to pay the bills and earn a living as a farmer, your higher apple yields are all-important; if you are hungry, or live in a country blighted by hunger, the total amount of food you get today- and every day- trumps any feel-good factor of “being holistic”. Happiness and job satisfaction come second after a full belly, every time.

This is explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which does in fact form part of the Permaculture Design Course curriculum- but is another example of permaculture completely ignoring its own teachings, even when they are valid. Permaculture attracts a middle-class hippy-peasant chic  that seems obsessed with the belief that poor people are happier, that this modern concern with actual, measurable yields and wealth is the whole problem. Instead, meeting physical needs is seen as somehow dirty and base compared with narcissistic aspirations of spiritual purity and “well-being”.

Just as Bretharians- who claim to survive on pure prana and need no food at all- invariably turn out to have a fridge full of sausages, so permaculture uses wishful thinking and Good Intentions to hide the fact that its own larder is very sparse indeed, and even the most successful permaculturalist will also avail of industrial food, diesel for the car and even the occasional international flight to attend conferences. In common with its close sister Organic farming, permaculture is really just the icing on the cake of industrial farming, a fossil-fuelled smoke-and-mirrors that feeds on industrial society all the while it claims to be replacing it.

Of course there are costs and benefits, inputs and outputs: in the real world, outside Big Rock Candy Mountain, these issues are commonly dealt with under “accounting”, something which from reading Brown’s article you get the impression is as yet unknown within the permaculture community but which, should it be stumbled upon,  will be trumpeted as a discovery to rival that of the Higgs Boson.

From Brown’s article again:

Preparing content for the Permaculture Digest, I have found little of use to the permaculture community in conventional plant science literature. Because research papers are expected to show strong statistical significance, work has become lab-based, not field-based. Moreover, in order to avoid complexity “contaminating” the results, there is an emphasis on the smallest units of analysis: genes, microbes, chemicals. This boosts conventional crop yields, but inevitably leads to interventions at a microscopic level and to GM crops.

Shock horror! Genes and chemicals just sound so… unholistic – how could a “permaculture science” ever embrace such things? And note the unquestioned assumption that this kind of “reductionist” science leading to GMOs just has to be bad- see the Toby Hemenway quote at the start of the post. Brown effectively acknowledges that permaculture is a political ideology, yet cannot join the dots to see that it cannot therefore be a science.

The strong link between permaculture and the reactionary anti-GMO movement is only too obvious to anyone who reads Permaculture Magazine, which campaigns actively on behalf of Vandana Shiva. Noone within the permaculture movement seems to have noticed that, given the challenges of keeping yields high in forest gardens while promoting biodiversity, and the much longer time-scales required to breed more suitable varieties of perennials and woody shrubs,  genetic engineering should be seized upon as a great ally of permaculture. See for example the work being done to resurrect the American Chestnut, something that could not be done with traditional plant-breeding methods.

One of the few scientists to take a critical look at permaculture is Dr. Linda Chalker-SCott of the Washington State University’s Extension Urban Horticulture department. She examines Toby Hemenway’s  book Gaia’s Garden and finds it lacking in rigorous science on a number of counts:

-his advocacy of invasive species such as bamboo, with scant regard for the ecological problems that can be casued by invasive species; (see Part 1: Permaculture- Beginning a Discussion;)
(Holmgren also has a controversial take on this issue, strongly advocating the work of Theodoropoulos, which is generally considered pseudoscience.)

-pseudoscientific advocacy of “companion planting”, “mineral accumulators” including the use of some poisonous and noxious weeds; (Part 2, Permaculture- the discussion continues;)

-another permaculture favourite, sheet-mulching with cardboard- this creates an impermeable layer at the soil level which tends to lead to anaerobic conditions; (Part 3- More Concerns);

-the expropriation of scientific concepts and words and re-defining them for use in permaculture; and failure to draw on the existing scientific literature, instead relying on grey literature and pseudoscience throughout (Part 4- Final Thoughts).

How can there ever be a “scientific permaculture” when many of the movement’s leading figures themselves seem influenced by pseudoscience, and apparently unaware of the real body of scientific knowledge in these areas?

Despite the laudable and as far as I know unique attempt by the Australian Permaculture Research Institute to have a teacher’s registery to restrict pseudoscience in permaculture, the movement will never be able to extract itself from the end-of-days religion of the wider environmental movement that it was sired from. Without resource depletion and Limits to Growth thinking, permaculture simply has no meaning at all. It is curious that Harper, for all his insights into how the movement deludes itself and is all fluff and no substance, still feels it has value and can be salvaged.

Permaculture then is a broad church and Harper is correct to say there are many permacultures; nevertheless it is inescapable that permaculture as a political movement fits snugly alongside broader conservative environmentalism, with its mixture of elitist traditionalism and eco-fascism, closely associated with New Age spirituality, anti-science and pseudo-science, the quackery of the Organics movement and “alternative” therapies, middle-class health-food obsessions and quasi-religious misanthropic convictions about the purity of Nature and the Fallen-ness of Mankind.

At the end of the day though, once you strip away the pseudo-science, the Sky-is-Falling doomerism and the feel-good idealism of living in barefoot communes and growing your own food (DON’T try this without subsidies like the dole) all you are left with is the Cult of Perma.

The anti-science of the Greens is a political strategy

The anti-science position of the greens on GMOs,  fracking and nuclear power, is itself political tool used to whip up fear.

One of the most bizarre things about debating anti-GMOers is the complete lack of interest in facts. Claims of health risks, links to farmer suicides in India or that Terminator genes are being used to control the global food supply and wipe out humanity are bandied about without the slightest regard for whether they are actually true or not.

For example in a recent debate on Facebook I was drawn into (I was warned by the host to be on my best behaviour and only posted useful links) there was mention on the recent pig feeding trials which claimed to show toxicity from GMOs. I posted a link to Mark Lynas’ discussion of this study, which, apart from exposing the flaws of the study, showed that the lead author is an activist and also connected to Seralini. This was the response:

Ah MArk Lynas – a paragon of common sense – the green turncoat of the nuclear and gm debate – ok well i see where this is going – you’re confidence in the science is laudable and Lynas is working for the other side… goodbye

So this is not about “science” or “facts” or “evidence” or any such- but about taking sides. Lynas is discredited because he has jumped ship and works for the Enemy; the handy thing about this position is that you don’t need to discuss the rights and wrongs of any of the issues.

This throws some light on Alice Bell’s recent article in the Guardian’s series on Science and the Greens Can you be sceptical about GM but believe in climate change?.

There is a lot to take issue with in this article but the paragraph that caused the most reaction below the line is

It’s also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of “you are wrong on science” rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political.

An example of this actually happening would be helpful- I have never seen a coherent critique of GM crops based on economic and political issues- concerns about corporations holding too much control on our food supply for example- that does not also play fast and loose with the actual evidence on things like food safety and efficacy of the technology.

What Bell fails to acknowledge is that most anti-GMO sentiment is in fact based on fear and distrust of science and scientists- the “Frankenfood” meme. Crazy unaccountable boffins in white suits meddling with Nature creating new traits that bring no benefits to anyone other than evil corporations who are portrayed as immoral drug dealers trying to get the poor and disenfranchised hooked for filthy lucre. Food + Profit + Science = Terror. The problem is, as Bjorn Lomborg points out effectively I think in his film Cool It! with regard to climate change, people who are scared- especially about things that are as personal as the food they eat and give their children- are not likely to be thinking very rationally. The emotional state of fear is in direct opposition to a careful consideration of and weighing up facts and evidence.

There is no doubt that people really do get genuinely scared about these things, and this affects their judgement and pretty much precludes them being open to evidence. An applicant to my course told me at the interview that they were applying because of concerns about global problems; when I asked which in particular, she said “Monsanto’s Terminator Seeds”. I pointed out there were none- “Oh come on, there must be!!” I think it is sad that people wake up each morning concerned about completely non-existent threats, but it seems that it is very hard to redress these fears with facts and information alone.

Activists know very well how to use fear to help their cause. Alice Bell also fails to acknowledge this- that the anti-GM movement cynically uses fear about food health safety to garner support- which leads to illegal acts of scientific sabotage. There is in fact a co-ordinated and quite deliberate, massively well-funded campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation, which feeds the mistrust and suspicion of science and scientists, and without which any political or economic argument would simply be unable to gain any traction. Political arguments tend to simply claim that under a capitalist system you cannot trust scientists, who are ultimately influenced in their research by corporate funders- which seems to be what Bell herself is also implying not-very-subtely in the same quote above.

Activist movements tend not to be very subtle. It has to be all or nothing. Nuance does not an effective Direct Action make. To oppose GM crops, to have people ready to break the law to destroy research, they have to be completely demonised. That is why facts and evidence can play no role. This is why the movement is inherently anti-science. If it was acknowledged that GM crops are safe to eat, that would more than somewhat take the wind out of the activists’ sails.

There is some debate as to whether people are really “anti-science” or just selective with their use of science, but this is a false distinction: being selective IS anti-science. Taking an approach that attacks and undermines and tries to physically prevent science from taking place is clearly anti-science. The claim that there is some kind of distinct political objection to GMOs is false: rather, and this is the point I think that Bell misses in her analysis, an anti-science position, which rejects the results of verifiable experiments, is itself used quite deliberately for political purposes; in fact, it forms the strategic foundation of the anti-GMO movement.

The anti-science position of the greens on GMOs,  fracking, nuclear power and apocalyptic climate alarmism is itself political tool used to whip up fear. Fear then chases away rational analysis and shuts the door on science. This has proved a hugely successful positive feedback strategy (although on climate it may be suffering from diminishing returns).

Furthermore, the anti-GMO movement is largely funded by Big Organic and Big Quacka- the Seralini study was funded and co-authored by a homeopathic group. Many rank-and-file anti-GMO supporters completely buy into this level of pseudo-science, a rejection of the validity of the scientific method in and of itself. I have debated with homeopaths and biodynamic/organic advocates many times who are not in the least but shy of taking this most extreme and explicit of anti-science positions:

-“Science doesnt know everything”
-“Science is only one way of knowing”
-“Science is reductionist and biased”
-“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

-and other such relativist/mystical positions.

What is most interesting about this whole issue is I think that suspicion of Big Science- a fear that it has become unaccountable, undemocratic and too powerful- is shared by many climate skeptics also. According to Warren Pearce in another piece from the same Guardian series, this may be with more good reason:

One of the most contentious issues arising from Climategate was the effort to withhold from publication data subjected to freedom of information requests. When physicist Phil Moriarty challenged these practices as being outside of accepted scientific standards, he was lauded by numerous commenters on the Bishop Hill sceptic blog as a “real scientist”.

Most climate “sceptics” it should be noted do not fall into the category of “pseudoscience” -unlike many organic supporters of the anti-GMO movement- but rather call for a genuine, scientifically sceptical approach to a very different kind of scientific question: the safety of GMO crops is readily verified through repeatable feeding trials, which if open and transparent fall into the category of good, classic scientific method. Noone has produced evidence that scientists have falsified experiments or withheld data on such trials or that the results have been manipulated.

Not so with climate science which as Pearce points out cannot be falsified in the Popperian sense. Most climate skeptics do not take issue with the verifiable results showing the “Greenhouse” effect of CO2, but of the fear-mongering that has been prevalent in the climate debate leading to irrational – anti-science?- policies which cannot in themselves address the issues in any case (such as Kyoto-style international treaties.)

Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards adds a fascinating comment on this debate in her piece in the Guardian series in which she calls for climate scientists to stick to the facts and the science and avoid drifting into specific policy recommendations. “I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral.” She goes on to conclude:

I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment, since a vivid school talk about the ozone layer (here, page 4) and the influence of my brother, who was green long before it was cool. But I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action; more about improving public understanding of science so society can make better-informed decisions, than about making people’s decisions for them. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.

I think this is a crucial, stunning contribution, which should go a long way to addressing concerns on both anti-GM activists and climate sceptics: if we focus on public understanding of science, and not worry so much on what the public will do with that information or which policy they will go for, then fears of scientist-activists or industry shills might gradually abate. The big losers will be those who use the anti-science of fear for political ends- be it climate alarmism or scare stories about Frankenfoods.

Rob Hopkins bans me from Transition Culture

Update 21-01-12: Anyone who has been around permaculture for a while, especially in Australia, will have guessed straight away that the person being discussed on the Permaculture Research Institute’s site in the Permaculture and Metaphysics post was none other than Geomancer extraordinaire Alanna Moore, author of Sensitive Permaculture with whom I crossed swords a few years ago over this very issue.

Rob joined in the discussions on my blog- he was at the time an ardent supporter of non-rational explanations for crop circles- and then, without discussing with me first, built a blog post around my supposed lack of courtesy towards Ms Moore during the debate, “Why Civility Matters in the Transition”, in which, rather than addressing the issues of science and rationality, or the use of legal threats to stifle debate, he suggested that my sarcasm was a prime example of some kind of moral decay that was threatening to lead us all into darkness.

In truth, Rob has always been a vocal Warrior for Woo.

By a curious if not actually cosmic synchronicity, the very day I posted the last item on woo in permaculture, Rob Hopkins was posting a parallel post on Transition Culture about more woo, this time in the form of a film I was previously unaware of called Thrive:

What do you do when you are the heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune and you have spent years surrounding yourself with new agey thinking and conspiracy theories? You make a film like ‘Thrive‘, the latest conspiracy theory movie that is popping up all over the place. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “have you seen ‘Thrive’?” Well I have now, and, to be frank, it’s dangerous tosh which deserves little other than our derision. It is also a very useful opportunity to look at a worldview which, according to Georgia Kelly writing at Huffington Post, masks “a reactionary, libertarian political agenda that stands in jarring contrast with the soothing tone of the presentation”.

Since the post was complimentary to my own and raising similar questions, I joined in the debate and sent in this comment:

Thanks Rob
I hadn’t heard of this film previously, thanks for alerting me! I’ll hardly be rushing out to view it, and of course you are absolutely right to challenge fantasies of conspiracy theories and free- energy machines.

There does seem to be a considerable cross-over with a lot of stuff Transition and the Greens/Left are also infected with that seems impossible to overlook- as Robert correctly states above King of Woo Deepak Chopra is also a darling of the Schumacher College of Woo where you also teach:

Can we expect to see from you as forthright an expose of the woo promoted by this new film, as you have done for Thrive?:

featuring Holmgren, John Seed and Stephen Harding (also of Schumacher)and others:

Permaculture and transition are also full of woo, and Im not the only one to have an issue with this:

The comment was held in moderation- and then I received this email from Rob: (more…)

Does the Spiritual have a place in Permaculture?

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.


The Prince, Schumacher and Orwell: more from the College of Woo

In the last post I pointed to the course offered by the Schumacher college in Devon and how the philosophy promoted there is closely linked to Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy, “Goethean Science”, and all manner of other woo based on the fundamental idea that environmental problems are a result of a materialistic view of the universe and consequent loss of “spirituality”.

As “S” has pointed out in the comments, one of the champions of this world-view is HRH the Prince of Wales, connected to Schumacher through his Duchy College, where Steiner’s mystic biodynamic agriculture is promoted.

Charles also has a chapter in the Lorimer book A New Renaissance: Transforming Science, Spirit and Society entitled ‘Restoring Harmony and Connection: Inner and Outer’. As mentioned in the last post, the book has several chapters by authors who run courses at Schumacher.

Lorimer is also the author of a book about HRH called “The Radical Prince”; he is also the Chair of the Wrekin Trust, which The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions describes as “A New Age movement established in Britain by Sir George Trevelyan (1906–96), who became an advocate of ‘alternative spirituality’ after hearing a lecture on Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy in 1942.”

It is well-known that Charles has a penchant for alternative medicine and various forms of occultism, and this seems to underpin his environmental concerns. Just this week, science writer Simon Singh has said the Prince is “ideologically fixated” with alternative therapies such as homeopathy, and refuses to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that these treatments do not work. (more…)

Schumacher Woo-macher

While looking into the Transition Towns movement for the last post, I had a look through the course offered at the Schumacher college in Dartington, Totnes.

Modeled on E.F. Schumacher’s principles of “Buddhist Economics” , the college runs an impressive series of short weekend workshops as well as a Masters in Holistic Science, with two more post-grad courses, one on Sustainable Horticulture and another on Economics for Transition scheduled to commence autumn 2012, and seems positioned as a significant center for disseminating some of the core ideologies on of the environmental movement:

Responding to the urgent needs of planet and society we want to reach as many people as possible with our work by enhancing the range and scope of our activities whilst maintaining the practice of education on a human scale.

Over the next few years our aim is to deliver programmes that reach over twice as many people as we do now, together with the possibility of engaging thousands more worldwide with our open learning and outreach initiatives.

Founded in 1991 by Satish – “the rockness-of-the-rock” – Kumar and others, Schumacher has hosted an impressive list of tutors on its many course over the years, including “king of woo” Deepak Chopra.


Other ways of Knowing

During recent forums following the last post on my interview on Transition Towns there were several issues discussed which I want to summarize and review here:

Firstly, woo (pseudo-science and superstition/religious beliefs) and its place in Transition, and in the environmental movement.

I have been debating woo and alternative therapies with Rob for several years, trying to encourage a more consistently rational approach. In particular, the active advocacy of “alternative” medicine, which we see both in the Transition Timeline of 2009, and in the Transition in Action (2010) seem to be blatantly pandering to those who support Transition but who also believe in herbalism and homeopathy.

In the discussion with Shaun Chamberlin at the time, he took exception (as does Rob last week) to the fact that it had been just one short passage in the book; however, since the quote specifically stated an unquestioning acceptance of alternatives, promoting them as becoming a “core pillar” of medicine in the future, I think this concern was warranted; and of course I believe that this (quite unnecessary) adoption and overt promotion of alternative therapies as integral to the Transition model is symptomatic of a more general rejection of science and reason that pervades, not just Transition, but the wider environmental movement. You don’t just casually or inadvertently promote an obvious aspect of pseudo-science in this way, defend its inclusion vigorously when challenged- and then expect to be taken seriously in other, more substantive areas (like energy or climate change.)

Moreover, we now have kinesiology being promoted:

Local evening classes help people to measure their own energy levels through kinesiology and biofeedback

in the section in Transition in Action in the “health and well-being” chapter.

In a way this is even more significant because kinesiology- or applied kinesiology– is not an alternative therapy as such, but a diagnostic method- in other words, a “way of knowing” based on getting answers from your own bodies’ reaction to questions you (or an alternative health practitioner) puts to you.

This idea that there are “other ways of knowing” goes to the very core of the issues surrounding New Age religion and pseudo-science: the belief that one’s intuition- as opposed to science, evidence and reason- can give you accurate and useful information is by definition the diametric opposite of science.


The Rational Optimist on Crop Circles and other Scientific Heresies

Must read text of Matt Ridley’s Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh on Bishop Hill.

Matt Ridley is author of The Rational Optimist, one of the main influences that turned me way from entrenched doomerism, and writes a blog of the same name. In this stunning talk he weaves together most of the main issues in the climate change debate, baldly stating how he sees much of the “consensus science” is pseudoscience- on a par with Crop Circles!

Funnily enough I was just writing about crop circles myself, and the strong influence of pseudoscience in the green movement, and had just fished down from my bookshelf The Field Guide- The Art, History and Crop Circle Making by Rob Irving and John Lundberg.

You can read one of my early forays into critical thinking on the subject here– but note that in those days I was breezily referring to “climate change denial” as pseudoscience!

The story of crop circles and the two distinct groups of the Circle Makers and the “researchers”- who “study” the circles to determine which ones are “hoaxes” and which ones are “genuine” -ie of paranormal origin- is surely one of the most fascinating in the canons of the New Age. The Circlemakers are quite open about needing the researchers and the legions of the faithful to give meaning to what they see as a sort of subversive performance art. Publicly they always stated that they believed all crop circles to be of human origin- although there were probably various teams of circle makers at different times who may not have all known each other- but had a strict rule of never confessing to the being the creator of any specific circle. The whole thing depended on the impossibility of proving that all crop circles were man-made. The steady improvement of techniques and increasing ambition and complexity of design helped perpetuate the myth.

At one point in the book I think Lundberg describes how it felt walking incognito back into a crop circle he had just spent all night creating to find a crowd of hippies standing there holding hands in a circle waiting for the Second Coming. You can see how irresistible it must have been…

Climate alarmism is similar in as much that nearly any effect in the weather can be attributed to the effects of CO2, and any prediction can be made without any certainty that it will not come about- but with little evidence to support it either:

“A theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome is a pseudoscientific theory.”

Ridley’s point though is that things like climate change alarmism are not art or pranks, but perpetuated by vast sums of money, and vested interests and are leading to hugely costly yet ineffective and unnecessary policies- the cure is worse than the disease:

At least crop circle believers cannot almost double your electricity bills and increase fuel poverty while driving jobs to Asia, to support their fetish.

At least creationists have not persuaded the BBC that balanced reporting is no longer necessary.

At least homeopaths have not made expensive condensing boilers, which shut down in cold weather, compulsory, as John Prescott did in 2005.

At least astrologers have not driven millions of people into real hunger, perhaps killing 192,000 last year according to one conservative estimate, by diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel*.

That’s why it matters. We’ve been asked to take some very painful cures. So we need to be sure the patient has a brain tumour rather than a nosebleed.

What is truly scary is as Matt explains how hard it is now to distinguish between science and its pseudo-version: no longer can we rely on just quoting the peer-reviewed evidence- we will have to look much more closely than that to be sure.


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