Mainstream Permaculture – An honest review

I’m under no illusion that the future will be a neat and tidy or desirable world. We will gain a lot of things through necessity and a lot of them through all sorts of fragile dysfunction—not because they’re bad ideas but because they will inevitably be adopted in a chaotic, reactive way. I think permaculture will become much stronger and more significant because the ideas behind it will grow rapidly as the system becomes more fragile.” ~ David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture


I started this blog around two years ago with a post titled “The Challenge of Permaculture”. I had just translated David Holmgren’s Crash on Demand and my dream was to leave my day job and start implementing permaculture not only in my life but in my community.

I wanted to teach PDC’s in a different way from what I had experienced myself and make them not only affordable but also much more inclusive, I had prepared myself through two PDCs (one still incomplete) and a Permaculture Teachers Training. I had in my back all my experience as a teacher and community worker/counsellor and workshop facilitator and I also had experience teaching food sovereignty workshops, first aid and emergency preparedness…what could fail?

But then I hit a wall: the same reasons that keep so many others enslave in “mainstream” are enslaving me. I created this blog and called it “Mainstream Permaculture”: as a middle-class, married with children, full-time worker and living in the suburbs middle-age woman, I knew very well what the challenges were for people to plan and start an energy descent action plan. I also knew why many experience permaculture as detached and elitist: people who are too young (i.e. children), too old (seniors), not fit or healthy or are too poor or too committed as slaves of a work schedule, pay, etc. are automatically left behind. Many don’t feel represented or taken into account. Many see some permaculturists as too weird, too radical and sometimes self-righteous and judgmental. Others feel  this is too difficult and unachievable for them as they see themselves as weak, unskilled, too tired or dependent of a system that’s killing them and making them unhappy.

I have read stories of people who felt oppressed and abused in PDCs or other permaculture projects and many left behind by either the action or inaction of those who should know better: even words can hurt when we don’t acknowledge our own privilege and assume that others have the same level of ability or access to things as we do.

In the two years that passed since my first post here, I’ve continued teaching food sovereignty and gardening workshops, volunteering for projects and more PDC assistance teaching and joined many different social-media groups. It has been challenging and demanding: I spend almost every weekend, evening, vacation and day off on planning, designing and implementing these workshops or approaching similar projects and communities. I’ve also spent money in books, tools and skills-training to equip myself, it hasn’t been easy.

In the  groups I’ve met (online or in person) I have also encountered many who were becoming disillusioned and unhappy with the ways permaculture was being taught and implemented: issues with the inclusion of women, minority groups, children and seniors, people with disabilities or chronic health issues, etc. many of the issues were concerned with the very nature of permaculture: taught as a sort of “organic gardening/farming” or where only techniques are taught in a highly dogmatic way without caring for the ethics or principles.

At the same time, I have been lucky enough to see the opposite: the emergence of social and inner permaculture and transition and being part of truly caring and supportive permaculture groups and communities.

This week, I read this interview with David Homlgren and a reader from my first post asked for specific ways to make permaculture more accessible, more inclusive.

I don’t have the answers…part of my continuous struggle is the question in my mind/heart: should I leave all mainstream behind and embrace my own permaculture path or should I stay behind to support those who can’t afford to leave and will be more affected by what’s coming?

Here I what I think needs to be done to not only spread permaculture but also make it more inclusive and less elitist or cult-like:

  • Understand that permaculture is a compilation that has roots in indigenous wisdom, systems thinking and ecology. The gift from Mollison and Holmgren as well as all who followed and contributed ideas, strategies and techniques was to put all that together under one cohesive umbrella, it is not a finished product not the “only” answer to the predicaments we have
  • Permaculture was born from the concern about resource depletion, social injustice, climate change and pollution; understanding these roots is essential to make it accessible and inclusive: we need an all-hands-on-deck approach, these issues won’t be solved by farmers, gardeners or those who can get off the grid only.
  • Permaculture is based on ethics. Caring for people means caring for ALL the people, being aware of our own privilege and how it reflects in language, behavior, assumptions and expectations of others.
  • Observe & Interact is one of the most important principles and the least respected: as someone who wants to teach, create a project, live or share permaculture with others we have an obligation to OBSERVE & INTERACT. This means observing and interacting with ourselves, our bodies, brains and hearts first to understand and embrace our gifts and limitations. Then, we need to observe & interact with those around us and most importantly, the communities or groups we want to work with, teach or share: how many permaculture projects are started without consultation with those impacted, or without observing what processed and elements are already present in the land? How many PDCs are taught by “saviours” full of judgment who come with all the “right answers”, solutions and techniques without asking what participants know, need or want?
  • Remember that techniques are not necessarily transferred: they tend to be localized. Something that worked well in a place may not work in the next. What makes permaculture different is not the herb spiral but the principles of design behind the herb spiral and similar approaches to space, watering and sun exposure issues.
  • Allow people to integrate permaculture at the level of ability, commitment and access they are right now. Do not act as a self-righteous person. Not everyone can go off the grid, leave their jobs, retrofit their houses, become vegetarian (or vegan), and work the soil and so on. There may be those who may be able to contribute with other abilities and gifts, and those who may be slower or experience too many challenges. Do not assume things, try to meet people where they are and understand…you may create more change that way than by judging and confronting.
  • When you design activities and lesson plans for your PDC or permaculture project, look for accessibility; ask yourself how this will impact participants, would this activity include them or may have elements that may create challenges and barriers?
  • While PDCs require commitment, think outside the box and offer small workshops or even entire PDCs that allow those who usually struggle, to feel more welcomed: flexible schedules for parents and people who work full-time; daycare arrangement for small children (or a PDC for children?); easier activities for seniors and people with disability or health issues; multiple ways to present the material for people with different accessibility or ability levels (pair with a special needs teacher or organization or ask them for feedback)
  • Work on your self-awareness; learn and practice non-violent communication; educate yourself in matters of oppression and colonization; assess your own language and actions and ask and accept feedback from others, even those who disagree with you or criticize you: most importantly them!
  • If a project didn’t work, or a PDC class never came back to you to show their achievements, ask yourself why and try something different next time. Most importantly, ask for feedback from those involved.


Certificates and show-offs won’t really matter. While they are important if you are to apply for grants or approach other potential supporters from government or non-profit agencies and organizations, they won’t make any difference in the long term.

In a way, I have navigated a bit far from permaculture and allowed myself to explore other areas, areas that may be better aligned with my personality, age, health and natural gifts. I tried too hard to learn horticulture from a formal institution and while it was useful and fun (also frustrating in many ways), it showed me my path was not in designing landscapes or working long hours in gardens and farms.

Allow this process to happen to you to, and allow the Earth to tell you what your call is. She will share that everyone else out there has one call too, and they deserve to be integrated and celebrated, not segregated and punished for not being a perfect picture of what a permaculturist is (whatever this picture is).

In the end, it won’t matter if the people and ecosystems survived and thrived because of permaculture or something else; what will really matter is that we supported them both to do so.


One Comment on “Mainstream Permaculture – An honest review

  1. Wow, you amaze me again Silvia, this is feeling like I feel. Permaculture is not about growing food, it is an indigenous way to work with nature to create a surplus or community, the more diversity the better.

    To share life, we humans are not important but if we manage to add to the diversity we will find our place back were we where most happy and part of.

    This system we are experiencing is keeping us down and will not allow us to survive when it finally breaks down.

    We are slaves but we do not admit, we have chains around our necks.

    All of us, the rich and the poor.

    Herb Titze

    Liked by 1 person

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