Teaching PDCs: To Certify or not Certify, that’s the question…

What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

A few days back I had an interesting e-conversation with a friend from the local Transition group: we are planning a PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate) for next year and the issue of Certification came up…

Coincidentally the same week, we received an inquire from the Cascadia Permaculture Teachers Training Facebook group I moderate along with Jude Hobbs, and a response from another of its members

This is a topic about which it is difficult for me to take a stance because it has both benefits and drawbacks and goes further into the ethics of Permaculture: what is Permaculture for? Why do we practice it and teach it? (If you want to know what I stand for, go to “The future: what is Permaculture for” right on the bottom of this post)

In order to make my point, I’ll put some background on it. This way, whether you are a recent PDC graduate looking for teaching, somebody with lots of experience with no PDC or certification (as a Permaculture teacher), somebody with no experience in Permaculture but full understanding of the paradigm or a full certified Permaculturist…you can make a decision of what is the place of “certification” for you and those affected by your teaching and practice…

Teaching Permaculture: what’s out there?

Permaculture has been around for ~ 35 years and in certain aspects it looks like a cult where Mollison and/or Holmgren and sometimes other “elders” are seen as geniuses and their word is taken as indisputable wisdom to settle any controversy.

We can find people teaching Permaculture who:

  • Are fully certified as teachers through any of the “regulatory bodies” that have since emerged: PRI, PI and PINA (I’m not aware of any other, if you are, please forward that to me)
  • Have years doing Permaculture as a way of life and through consulting, designing and implementing projects based on Permaculture and/or teaching PDCs, intros and modules (many may not be certified)
  • Have recently graduated from a PDC and are eager to spread the word out there but may not have much experience in any of the above (however, may or may not have lots of experience in one or more areas that can easily apply to Permaculture)
  • Have read books, watched videos and enthusiastically and successfully applied many principles, strategies and techniques to their own homes, gardens and even lives (but may lack “wider” Permaculture experience and/or the PDC)

Among any of the above categories, we also find people who:

  • Believe Permaculture is all about design (and nothing else)
  • Believe Permaculture is about accessing land, getting off the grid and becoming self-sufficient
  • Believe Permaculture is a profession and therefore should be regulated
  • Believe Permaculture is only for experts, and therefore every single newbie needs to pay a novitiate and be initiated after years of supervised practice and trials
  • Believe Permaculture is “the way” and nothing else matters
  • Believe Permaculture is all about building resilience in face of the huge predicaments our society (and ecosystems, as a result) are facing

I may be missing a group or two, but the above is what I have gotten from my observations…if you have been following my current and pasts blogs you may guess what “category” I belong to

Current paths to certification:

Currently, there are three known certifications paths:

Each one of the above institutions is run by a group of well-known and respected “elders” of Permaculture: people who have dedicated their lives to study, design and teach it.

The good, the bad and the ugly

We have met the enemy and he is us” ~ Pogo

As mentioned above, certification belongs to what we can call “Permaculture politics” and there are many pushing for certification and standards…and others who wouldn’t care less.

As anything human, there is no easy answer and people tend to complicate things further…let’s see the options:

Why certification may be a good idea

You need something to open up a new door, to show you something you seen before but overlooked a hundred times or more
~ Bob Dylan, Writings And Drawings

There is one thing most permaculturists agree on: the world has gone nuts and overshot, there is a lot of ecosystems destruction and loss and we need to do something positive about it.

There is a lot of common sense and ancient wisdom which may help, but people have chosen to look somewhere else…things our grandmas and their grandmas did have been abandoned in the name of efficiency and comfort, but this has impacted not only ecosystems big deal, but also other cultures and human beings

Thankfully, this is slowly but steady changing and institutions that were born to keep the “status quo” such as local governments, school boards, churches and so on are approaching us for an answer: they are seeing with good eyes that local people organize, create community gardens, grow food in their yards, learn to preserve food and harvest water, save energy, choose public transportation and so on…and those are some of the things Permaculture (and its urban “daughter”: Transition) have to offer

However, many of these institutions are still concerned about things such as liability, credibility and accountability

Those are good reasons why becoming certified makes sense: unless you have a degree or certificate in something and/or a portfolio and references to show expertise and experience, you value nothing to them

There are other reasons:

  • All certifications ask for you to take a PDC: this is important, as reading, watching videos and practicing alone may be missing pieces you don’t even know they exist: while I’m all for introverts and quiet reflection, I have come to appreciate what group work and sharing can do: extend your horizons and show you things you were not aware of
  • All certifications (and more those that are teacher certifications) ask for both experience, referrals from co-teachers or students and studies: this ensures quality for those you’ll teach but also ensures you stay focused and pressed to learn (and do) more

Why expectations on certification/experience may be bad ideas

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

This may seem as a contradiction, but it is not: for many, certifications are expensive or impractical as some areas lack PDCs or those that exist ask for full-immersion (something many can’t afford)

Asking people to leave their families and jobs to not only take a PDC but also work on practical projects to gain experience may be a burden they are not ready to take (hey, not everybody is debt and mortgage free, is single or has the support of partners and family, is fit and able, has money to support themselves without working or has access to land)

Many, however, may have plenty of skills and ideas to share with others…or may have grasped all the elements of Permaculture really well and are able to deliver this wisdom to friends and neighbours and other community members eager to learn

When Permaculture goes wrong and ugly

Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
~ Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

One Permaculture teacher told us once that PDC graduates are like Golden Retriever puppies: they are adorable messy beings who carry lots o enthusiasm and energy but have the potential to do as much good as damage…

I laughed but then I reflected: how right! And how dangerous that can be…

Permaculturists who don’t fully get the “philosophy” and real goal of Permaculture can do more wrong than right: both to Permaculture and to the communities or people they “apply” their projects or teaching to…

I have some examples to share:

  • “South” is not always the sunniest side: you’ll know this if you travel or study geography and it seems too evident, right? However, I’ve seen a few trying to build greenhouses and gardens in the South without stopping to think about context and priorities…
  • Mulching, hugelkulture, herb spirals and even food forests, as many other Permaculture “practices” are not silver bullets: however, these are the most misused and visible “projects” many permaculturists do…same as cob ovens, benches and houses…this is the problem of not understanding the three main parts of Permaculture: ethics, principles and design-process. What these practices do is destroy local ecosystems (including human interactions) and/or attract more problems that the ones they intended to solve…why? because they didn’t take the time to “Observe & Interact” and design as introverts who them meet as a group and discuss the potential consequences, influences and impacts (succession, zones, factors)
  • Science and research are not bad words: the fact that Permaculture is holistic and systems-based and science/research have developed into a reductionist-specialized zealot doesn’t mean we can’t research and be scientific when running Permaculture projects: I’ve also seen a lot of pseudo-science that puts people and ecosystems in danger through the application of untested “miracles”

Having said so, cutting the wings (or the paws) of these enthusiastic crowds is not a good idea either: there are more great initiatives, projects and life changes due to this than dangerous mistakes

Probably the Permaculture principle: “apply self-regulation and accept feedback” is what applies better here

Group dynamics: tendencies to standardize and structure

We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

When I took my Transition training last year with Naresh Giagrande and Nick Osborne we learned that groups of all kinds go through a series of phases and processes.

One of these phases is “norming”: this can be a somewhat dangerous phase as groups tend to develop “groupthink” and become jealous of rules, guidelines and decisions about who “belongs” and who doesn’t…

The Permaculture world is not exempt from this and it has to be cautious of not “over-policing” through standards, regulations and rules that may clash with one of its ethics: People-Care

From my point of view, and when I do support certification as a way to keep consistency, quality and focus in our own paths, too much emphasis on this may transform a beautiful, organic and grassroots thing like Permaculture into an elitist cult (or “profession”) where only a few can enter…

(See more about group dynamics in my summary of Transition training here: http://silviadiblasio.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/transition-training-week-four-group-dynamics/ )


The Future: what is Permaculture For?

What permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet. We don’t know what details of a truly sustainable future are going to be like, but we need options, we need people experimenting in all kinds of ways and permaculturists are one of the critical gangs that are doing that.” – David Suzuki, International Environmental Advocate

I am fully convinced that Permaculture came to be as a response to the predicaments we ourselves created.

I am also fully aligned with Holmgren’s vision as presented in his writings: Permaculture, principles and pathways beyond sustainability (book), Future Scenarios (book and website) and Crash on demand (essay, which I translated to Spanish early this year)

Since this point of view, we don’t have decades to “gain experience” nor years to “get certified”…it really doesn’t matter whether we are more in the practical side and have farmed sustainably for years, are detached from the grid and live a fully self-sufficient life…or (as I do) live in a suburban townhouse completely dependent on the grid, work a full-time mainstream job and are still attached to mortgages, debt and the grocery store: what matters is that we start applying Permaculture to our lives and (to the extend we can) to the lives of those in our communities, looking for ways to detach ourselves from the oppressive, dependency-oriented and unsustainable grid while strengthening both our inner and outer systems: our “zones” such as the local community where we live.

Those of us who can afford it can still go for certification as this would make the transition more “credible” for city councillors and school board members.

However, when the moment of truth comes and we need to test our own resilience and that of our communities, it wouldn’t really matter: what it would matter is that we learned, we applied and we shared as much as we can…


How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
~ Bob Dylan

2 Comments on “Teaching PDCs: To Certify or not Certify, that’s the question…

  1. wow great article! I have been musing about this topic for a long time! I am also interested in social justice-based models of teaching permaculture and the issue of certification is a tricky one for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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

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