Permaculture Beyond the Garden: Going In to Reach Out

Bill Mollison, co-creator of the concept and movement of permaculture passed last week. There are now dozens of publications honouring his life and legacy (see some under “resources” below) and his passing means one thing to me: those of us who are still “here” have an even stronger responsibility to try expanding permaculture until its name becomes so mainstream that everyone is “living” it more than trying to figure out what it means.

When Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the concept, the world had already passed the “limits to grow”. Concepts such as Peak Oil and Climate Change were not yet in their vocabulary, but they (and many others like them, even way earlier than they did) already knew about resource depletion, ecosystems pollution and destruction and social inequality. Permaculture was born as a highly political, social, philosophical and economic statement disguised as “gardening”: but instead of focusing on old and dysfunctional political economic, social and philosophical ideas, they decided to do two things: observe how both Nature and cultures that have managed to survive in a somewhat peaceful and ecological way (i.e. truly resilience and sustainable) worked.

Permaculture, in many ways, is nothing new: if you look at the “techniques” and “strategies”, they have been borrowed and adapted from what peoples all around the world have used for centuries. Most of them are just common sense and utilize local, renewable resources and appropriate technology (technology developed locally, again with local and usually resources to solve local problems). This was the way humankind lived for millennia before the industrial revolution along with the use of fossil fuels and capitalism/free market/globalization changed everything.

What make permaculture magical are neither the strategies nor the techniques; what makes it different are the Ethics and the Principles.

Until now, no technology has been developed by people thinking on its implications for the Earth, People and Others (including ecosystems, other living beings, people in faraway places and future generations). What’s good about Mollison and Holmgren’s three Ethics system is that is simple and respectful while it includes almost anything we can think about and acts as a filter for anything we do. We can ask for every decision, design, relationship, project, etc.: “How does this reflect Earth Care?” “How does this respect People Care?” and “How does this respect Fair Share?”

Permaculture ethics also allow for freedom at the spiritual level: they don’t argue with any religion or the lack of it but they show a respectful, truly sustainable and resilient way to live in this planet.

Principles, on the other hand, come from deep observation of systems: both ecosystems and social systems that work in resilient and sustainable ways. Both Mollison and Holmgren systems of principles provide us with thinking tools we can utilize to “test” a design and see how resilient and truly sustainable is.

There are almost as many permaculture definitions as permaculturists, but all convey more or less the same in practice: the only way to survive as a species in this planet is to live ethically towards ecosystems, people and future generations. The details are local, but the big concept is global.

Permaculture, as it happens, it is much more than organic gardening and design. Unfortunately, a lot of people still view it that way, including many PDC instructors, consultants and practitioners.

Permaculture has evolved beyond its seminal book “Permaculture: A designer’s manual”, and one of the main weaknesses in the original concept was related to what now is called “Social Permaculture” and sometimes also “Inner Permaculture”, concepts that have been developed by two great permaculturist and transitioners: Looby Macnamara and Sophy Banks.

Embracing Permaculture without focusing on all its ethics and principles has created all kind of strange results: I keep hearing complains of people traumatized at PDCs, people fighting each other about strategies and techniques, people trashing permaculture as too narrow or dogmatic and the like. I have seen this happening not only among permaculture circles but also at Transition Town initiatives: their outreach stays limited to a small group of already converters who keep preaching to the choir while the “mainstream” out there continues its oblivious path to ecological and social suicide.

When years ago I started this path, I focused as many do on the external changes: stopped buying and using disposable products, started preserving food, increased the food production by becoming part of the founders of a community garden, went vegan and so on…but at some point, I hit a wall: I live in the same townhouse, still work full time at the same organization, carry a big debt and it seems as permaculture has only touched me from all the people in my family and old friends circles.

Being myself a life & career coach, I ask myself everyday: what’s wrong?

Then I recalled this story:

An autobiography in Five Chapters

Chapter 1) walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost…I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find my way out.

Chapter 2) walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is in there. I still fall in…it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter 5) I walk down another street.

~ Sogyal Rinpoche (* Adapted from “People & Permaculture” by LoobyManamara)

And I realized I’m somewhere between the second and third chapter: until I figure out how to “choose another street” and “take responsibility” and acknowledge what parts of change do I owe and which ones belong to others, nothing will truly change…

What this story about me has to do with permaculture? A lot…

As it happens, I am in the path of linking life/career coaching with community resilience/social change, applied ecopsychology, systems thinking and permaculture.

In life coaching (more specifically, transformative coaching), we know we can’t start helping others when we haven’t explored the main challenges to change within ourselves and our closed circles.

Those of us who “know” about the many predicaments and status of the world and don’t believe in things such as “technologies will save us”, “human ingenuity will save us” and similar wishful thinking patterns; usually ask ourselves “what’s wrong with mainstream?”…I’ve heard it again and again: “the masses don’t get it!”, “why cannot they change?” and on and on!

Many of those who have crossed the line and are living lives of “righteousness” (off the grid, voluntary simplicity, vegan, etc.), seem to see us (those still immersed into “mainstream”) as stubborn, ignorant, greedy, too comfortable or in denial.

As it turns out, this just continues the “Story of Separation” as Charles Eisenstein calls it: the story of “Us” Vs “Them” that has created all this mess in the first place.

If you have been paying attention, there is a huge weakness here: the lack of People Care from permaculture, or lack of true compassion, from Buddhism; however you want to see it, by trashing people and making them feel as failures, the only thing we get is defensiveness and rejection. Most people react by behaving even worse when their behaviour or intentions are criticized…

As it turns out, the same happens with us internally: when we criticize and trash ourselves, when we blame and shame ourselves, the rebel in us may react by blocking changes and expanding (instead of diminishing) some of the behaviours we want to change.

Life Design Vs Life Pathways

In the next few months, I will be exploring the integration of the concepts above by implementing them to my own life.

In my dreams, I plan to take a three to four months break from everything to read, walk, reflect and write. In reality, I have to consider the impact of this on my two sons and partner as well as my two old cats and dog, community garden and all the groups and causes I belong. I also need to pay off the debt, so it doesn’t become their burden (it would be super nice to leave it all behind, including the bills, but would that be “People Care” or even “Fair Share”?)

Life Design, as created by Looby Macnamara, as well as Livelihood Design, by Anaya, are great ways to start looking to one’s life and choices through permaculture/systems thinking lenses. Along with theirs, I am adopting Javan Bernakevitch’s Holistic Management Goal Setting, also inspired by permaculture.

The Design Web - credit Looby Macnamara
The Design Web – credit Looby Macnamara

Something in me, however, rebels against all of it: it is the same part that thinks certificates and credentials are useless and ego-centered when it comes to real impact; this society we live in, however, is all about them: you can’t get a good gig if you don’t have a masters degree and a portfolio full of good friends in high places!

The part of me who rejects “design” also wants to talk and her voice is really strong: she’s the “witch” in me who allows life to just flow and show its beauty and ugliness, pain and joy, supports and challenges.

Life, as it turns out, always finds a way. As I shared with a group of wise women in the past week: our demise wouldn’t be more than just a nap in the long life of Gaia.

When despair reaches me, that thought above keeps me sane.



On Bill Mollison passing:

Looby Macnamara Design Web:

Sophy Banks’ articles:

Designed Visions website:

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