Teaching Permaculture: What is Permaculture For

Eating ants
Eating ants with my PDC classmates…:)

Now that Permaculture has emerged from the fringes it used to be for so many years and it is starting to permeate mainstream (thanks to the urban farm, food sovereignty and Transition movements, among other reasons), permaculturists are starting to have what I would call the “people problem” and the “growth problem”: whenever there are people involved, we have diverse points of view and differences about how things should be done or even what they mean in the first place. And whenever a system or movement grow, we have the tendency of creating standards for them, boxing them and ultimately absorbing them before being influenced by them. Society also trivializes many grassroots emergences or revolutions by either “integrating” them to mainstream until they may lose all their initial strength and meaning…or, until they changes mainstream itself

Changes, as it turns out, are complex, non-lineal and sometimes excruciatingly slow…


There is a reason I decided to go ahead with this project of pushing Permaculture to become more mainstream: I strongly believe Permaculture may be our last chance (if not the only one) to do it “right”: one step at a time, one person/household at a time, one community at a time…

Look around you: Nature balances itself: either through slow erosion or sudden natural disasters/outbreaks, it fixes any imbalance on the systems: nothing is static, nothing stays forever, unchanged. But still, there is a constant “looking for balance” in this changing process.

Humans, on the other hand, seem to be “the” problem: as I was commenting to a friend these past days, it is easier to design a “sustainable’ garden than a “sustainable” household, community or even our own lives: we are always haunted by all kind of ghosts and traumas, and when we are not, we create them!

Permaculture is a “people” thing, so it is not exempt of this. Unfortunately, I have started to see the same problems we have “in the world” mirrored in Permaculture: there are groups that propose standards to safeguard quality and credibility of the “profession” and “name” and Permaculture teachers who suggest there are already enough teachers out there so instead of saturating “the market”, we should become consultants, designers and prepare to work for “the client”.

I have also seen permaculturists judging others who may not be gardening or doing what permaculturists are supposed to do (or live how they are supposed to live).

I have also seen some zeal reflected on what a PDC should be, where, by whom and how…

All of the above makes me ask: what is Permaculture for? Why do we need it? Where are its ethics (People, Earth and Future care) reflected in these assumptions, attitudes and behaviours?

A few weeks back, I came across this post from seasoned Permaculture teacher Scott Pittman: Teaching Permaculture as if Mattered. I was initially in agreement with many of Scott’s ideas (teachers need to be knowledgeable both of the subject and pedagogy, better if this is holistic; and teachers need to be, more than communicators or “feeders”, inspiring and awakeners of learners’ potential. This, by the way, applies not only to Permaculture teaching, but to any teaching), however, there were some that bothered me: his criticism on “massive teaching” and other forms of teaching beyond the “in-person, full-immersion” group model. I am, however, fully with him in the idea that Permaculture should run as far away as possible from any association with capitalism…but again, we are in transition (and we need to work with what we have and where we are): it is, again, a complex, non-linear balancing act, and more than anything, we may need to incorporate lots of “People Care” and be compassionate of others as well as ourselves.

Massive and online/distance teaching/learning Vs F2F learning/teaching:

While I had a good experience in my first (full-time, almost full-immersed) first PDC, I also had contradictory experiences: contradictory because they would go against the same stuff we were learning and against some of the ethics and principles…full-time, face-to-face or immersion learning of Permaculture doesn’t guarantee a caring and nurturing environment, or that everybody feels validated and empowered or inspired…same as a very knowledgeable teacher doesn’t guarantee that learning truly happens, as learning doesn’t happen from the teacher’s side: there has to be a combination of head, heart and hands for transformative, holistic learning to happen…there also has to be a lot of critical and ethical thinking and connection-making to create “aha” moments where people finally “see” the Matrix (not only the matrix of life, but also the matrix we are trapped in, the one we have created)and that is the kind of learning we need in Permaculture: we don’t need zombies who jump to mulch any surface, start a food forest or a hugelkulture or try to fill the neighbourhood with cob benches…how sustainable and people, earth and future caring is that in cities inhabited with peoples who need to make their current houses and systems resilient and “beyond sustainable” and may not have access to land, seeds or hay? And what about places where mulching doesn’t work well or where hugelkulture needs to be done by bringing external wood? What do we do with poop from composting toilets or how do we disinfect water or take toxics out of the soil in scientific, proven ways?

Face-to-Face learning is great and I support it. But sometimes is not possible: think about people who work full-time, have families and other commitments, people with disabilities or chronic health challenges, single-mothers and elders, those in prisons or deployed in far away places and those living far from where PDCs are being offered…

If we talk about “People Care” we also need to think about those who don’t ride bikes, those who don’t drive at all and those who can’t afford the ~$1,000 a PDC costs…

And if we are talking about Earth and future care (as Fair-share is also called: future-care), we need to consider our ecological footprint when people travel long distances to attend our PDCs, the amount of paper and other supplies we use for our activities and so on…(Nature doesn’t really care whether our reasons to take a flight or drive are good and deep or superficial and random, climate change and resource depletion/erosion happen regardless)

I would like to respond to Scott’s call to discuss the topic (at the closing of his post) with my own experience as both teacher and learner who have extensively used online/distance teaching/learning and, since last year, also massive learning…I will also add all the (transformative and holistic) learning I have accumulating in my 20+ years of experience as educator in many different environments (including online/distance):

  • Online/Distance learning doesn’t have to be cold and uncaring and can be astonishing and deeply transformative: try having a deep discussion about the impacts of climate change, the value and meaning (or lack) of copyrights, the un-sustainability of a given system and so on at 2 am with a like-minded human being from across the ocean when everything and everybody else are quiet around you…these discussions can report much more ethical and critical thinking than short discussion happening in person when (sometimes) there is no time or not good mediation from the instructor. Good online instructors can create the environment for this to happen…for some people (shy, too young, too old, historically oppressed and disempowered groups, etc), this may be the only way they can start to express themselves and be truly heard…
  • Massive doesn’t need to equal mediocrity nor lack of support: some of the best lessons and teachers I recall have been online instructors who are not only knowledgeable but passionate about the topics they teach…they also surround themselves of excellent TAs who encourage, answer and provide feedback to most interactions: they post the latest finding on the topic through videos, articles, blogs, etc and make you think through well developed questions, case studies, etc. They support reflection (not just absorption) by asking learners to journal and reflect, look for alternative views and actually apply what they are learning (and reporting back)
  • Online/Distance doesn’t equal passive or lazy: this is a common misunderstanding and probably fed by “bad” online/distance courses that copy-and-paste texts and only ask people to read and then regurgitate what they read…well designed and implemented online/distance courses (sounds like Permaculture?) are dynamic and ask for many hours of real engagement (but people can do this at their own rhythm, pace and schedule)…during class (bad designed by bad teachers), some people may stay unengaged, silent and clueless and pass by cheating or “joining a team” that does all for them. Those who have something interesting to say may be ignored due to lack of time or the (always misused) rule of “engaging everybody at the same level”. Online/Distance courses allow for diversity and there are spaces for everybody. Most courses ask for application of the learning in real life and then showcase to others or peer-to-peer reviews and feedback. I’ve found that online learning is much more demanding (and many times has more quality) than F2F courses…
  • Online/Distance courses allow for repetition and recording of material: in F2F courses, people may miss details because they were distracted, were not present or because of other barriers (not sharing the same language, accent, shyness of expressing questions, etc). In online/distance courses, most of the material (including videos, podcasts, lectures) can be recorded, rewind and repeated many times and the written platform allows for ESL misunderstandings to be clarified

When (some) permaculturists express that teaching (Permaculture) is a saturated field, that ethics are dissolving and that we should care for standards, I become concerned…

What is Permaculture for?

  • Permaculture is not a “profession”: we may change our occupation/ways to earn a living after learning Permaculture, just because we realize that staying in this paradigm/system is not only not sustainable but damaging and unethical. But we are still in transition, abandoning our “unsustainable and unethical” jobs is not doable for everybody and we still need all kinds of skills around to create resilient communities: from doctors to teachers, from plumbers to electricians and from career coaches to horticulturists…
  • Teaching can’t and shouldn’t be “saturated” and may be, instead, something every responsible and aware person may do beyond whatever they do for a living: if I know more about principles and ethics and can teach systems and ethical thinking but not about cobbing or guilds, why shouldn’t I teach?
  • PDCs, instead of being taught by a few rare specialists, may perfectly be taught by a combination of many teachers: while one (the systems and ethical systems one) may run the entire curriculum, we may have “speakers” with lots of experience with trees, animals, water and so on…I’m not talking about specialization, but about getting the best from those who know best while allowing people to see “beyond the PDC” and start thinking in areas they may develop more than others (according to their skills, interests, needs and abilities)
  • While we may want to be careful of not allowing charlatans to hijack Permaculture, adding too many standards and constraints makes us forget what Permaculture really is: a critical and ethical systems thinking whose goal is to both regenerate systems while making the existing ones more resilient and “beyond sustainability”…this can’t be accomplished at the level it needs to if we look at Permaculture as an elitist, closed professional group who needs to protect its name…we need to spread this stuff as far as possible, to as much people as possible, if we want to accomplish anything at all (i.e. resilient building, regeneration, beyond sustainable living)
  • Those who actually make a living from Permaculture (consultants, designers, teachers) need not to forget the meaning of what they are doing…
  • Permaculture is not here to “make money”: it is here as an approach (probably the last chance we have) to save this planet from another huge extinction and transformation, this time human-driven…and it is also here to see if (finally) we humans can apply it (Permaculture) to our own lives and communities, to our relationships and attitudes, because the problem is not Nature, the problem is us.
  • (paraphrasing my mentor, who also paraphrased one of the elders):Permaculture is not something we “do”, instead, we use Permaculture in what we do: if somebody doesn’t show (Permaculture) ethics or principles in what they do, if they are not using system’s thinking, then that is not Permaculture…and the opposite is also true! You may have been practicing Permaculture without even knowing there was a name to it.


Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter whether we call it Permaculture or anything else…

I invite you all to think about what is (in the end) our goal: if anything, my goal is summarized in Holmgren’s last essay: “Crash on Demand”…it is not a matter of standards, professionalism or saving the Permaculture’s name: it is a matter of survival and ethically taking responsibility.

When thinking on delivering Permaculture, think on what it stands for…

David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.” (Crash on Demand’s website blurb)

Recommended reading:

Future Scenarios: http://www.futurescenarios.org/

Transition ingredients: http://www.transitionnetwork.org/ingredients

Crash on Demand, the discussion so far: http://holmgren.com.au/crash-demand-discussion/

Book: Permaculture, principles and pathways beyond sustainability http://holmgren.com.au/product/principles/

Videos: Toby Hemenway, how Permaculture can save humanity and the planet – but not civilization : http://www.patternliteracy.com/videos/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-planet-but-not-civilization

6 Comments on “Teaching Permaculture: What is Permaculture For

  1. Superb write-up. Many a time I look at on-line courses & their fees & actually wonder what really is Permaculture. The sentence ~ “Permaculture is not something we “do”, instead, we use Permaculture in what we do” has made me feel better. Thank you.


  2. Pingback: Crash on Demand, the discussion so far - Holmgren Permaculture Design for Sustainable Living

  3. Thank you! Not only for your thoughts on this topic, but for all you do! Wish I was living in your area so I could personally learn from you! I did an introductory course some years ago from the first person that did do part of the course abroad.. Now little more knowledge becomes available in my area and I can not stop looking for internetsites on the topic!! Now registered for an online course for my daughter to get her certificate PCD (for both of us just cost way to much with our financial situation, despite being super frugal) so she may one day be able to teach here herself and maybe get a little income (unlikely with wages here) but at least we both learn the design principles. If only I could meet people here that know about what plants work here and what not, I am afraid 90% of that knowledge has gone with the progress of the economy… And I am supergood in NOT remembering names, neither of people, plants, techniques etc….
    Thanks again for all you do for us!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Permaculture for Life ~ What, Who and How – Mainstream Permaculture

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