Following a trail of slightly mysterious clues, I found my way into a Permaculture Design Course some thirteen years ago, in January of 1990. Emerging on the other side a rainy fortnight later, I felt a bit like Alice after she disappeared down the rabbit hole: nothing was quite the same as it had been before. Or perhaps it was, only more so. Whatever words I put to it now, my life had changed: There was no going back.
That heady combination of camaraderie, intellectual stimulation, intimacy, and holistic learning provided a peak experience, one I can still summon vividly to mind.
But what had changed?
On the surface and in short order, everything: job, career, relationships, residence, studies, daily activities, associations, friendships. What had changed fundamentally was my view of the world and my relation to it. As my core values had at last been linked with a coherent means of expression, all the outer forms of my life underwent an upheaval. I had found a way to live responsibly on earth, learned to see through present problems toward future solutions, and I think most importantly, discovered that there was important work to be done and that I could do some of it. The power of making these discoveries in the company of others similarly “turned on” was profound and long-lasting. Why should any of this matter? Of course, the turmoil and transformation were exciting and full of personal meaning, but the changes I embraced in my own life have, I believe, made a positive impact on society.
Moreover–and this is why I write–this personal experience of change offers some insight about the process itself. And the process of personal empowerment and transformation, engendered as I suggest by taking the Permaculture Design Course, lends credence to the strategy of teaching as a vehicle for progressive social change.
It would be foolish to imagine that my calling is the only way good work can come about in the world. Certainly permaculture is not the only answer to the world’s woes. But it does have a role to play. And those of us who carry this gift need to remember the value of sharing it.
What in the World Needs Changing?
Just as I begin each permaculture course I teach with a brief exploration of the global crisis, it seems necessary to point out the challenges and opportunities presently facing humanity as we call for change.
Readers of this magazine well understand the dimensions of the global environmental crisis: global warming threatens to disrupt planetary life-support systems; all ecosystems are polluted and many forms of that pollution are persistent and deadly to life; humanity is overspending its ecological budget, consuming more resources than the biosphere can provide sustainably; and we are enmeshed in a social, political, and economic system that depends upon this fateful consumption and at the same time shows increasing disparity between a rich few and an impoverished multitude.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of the world’s scientists are agreed that global climate shift is underway, will have dramatic effects on all living systems, and is undoubtedly driven by human activities, governments and most large corporations have thus far failed spectacularly to respond to this urgent warning. It’s clear that institutions worldwide are out of touch with reality. This appalling situation and the continuing scourges of hunger and racism point to a social and ethical crisis in our civilization proportional to, and, I would suggest, at the root of the environmental crisis.
We need a shift of behavior from the world’s most privileged citizens and we need it fast. Reducing fossil energy consumption worldwide by 90% in the next decade is probably the minimum price of admission to a livable future. Logically for this to come about, the economy will have to be re-oriented to reduce transport and waste, patterns of settlement and building must shift toward efficient use of land, energy, and resources, and renewable energy production must be dramatically increased.
These changes must be accompanied by widespread education for sustainability, and they must take place in dozens of cultures and languages everywhere simultaneously, in both industrial and traditional societies.
How Do We Do it?
The changes the world must make cannot be mandated by any single authority, no matter how powerful, but must rather be adopted by people everywhere from a sense that these are the best approaches we can make toward preserving a livable world. Everyone must have a stake in their success.
Seen from a mechanistic point of view, the changes required by the present crisis are unlikely to occur soon enough to be effective. Nevertheless, we must imagine and work for the possibility that they can occur. Indeed the present crisis, is in many respects, a product of unbalanced, mechanistic thinking, and of institutions based on that world view. To create a way forward, we must first change our point of view.
The only resource we have available to us that is equal to the vast, incredibly complex, and interlocking problems facing the world is human creativity. And it can only be unleashed when the barriers of ignorance and domination are removed. This is the role of true leadership today. My experience as a teacher of design has shown me what insightful thinkers have also pointed out–that people’s potential to solve apparently intractable problems is far greater than we imagine, but, if that capacity is to be realized, people must be given respect, access to information, and a sense of the importance of the job to be done. The Permaculture Design Course is a vehicle for meeting those conditions.
Permaculture is all about empowering people to take responsibility for their own lives by teaching them how to design living environments and economic systems that meet their needs. It is essentially a way of thinking holistically, grounded in the truths of nature, and works by shifting perspectives. The permaculture design system is based in a simple code of ethics: Earthcare, PeopleCare, and FairShare. Ethics tell us how to behave. The premise underlying the permaculture movement is that if ordinary people are able to design regenerative systems in accord with these precepts, they will not fall victim to the manipulations and follies of governments and wealthy elites, and more than that, they will be able to assume leadership in their own communities to bring about the changes in culture and technology the world so desperately needs now.
Teaching permaculture is a powerful experience. It changes lives for the better, and is a regenerative force, giving rise to more acts of healing and empowerment. I have taught 30 courses over the past decade and each has been a moving experience for me and for all the participants. I am sure that every permaculture teacher has his or her own stories to tell of careers launched, projects or journeys undertaken, and lives turned inside out. The collective bounty is immeasurable. Occasionally I hear from former students and the news is usually uplifting. A grandmother in a course I taught recently went home from the experience and restructured her not-inconsiderable investment portfolio. Unable to dig swales, but awakened to the need for sustainable economics, she got out of the stock market and is setting up a revolving loan fund for local permaculture projects. Such stories are but the tip of an immense iceberg of positive changes. Each time I teach, my own enthusiasm for permaculture work and for productive change is renewed. The energies of amazement, inspiration, gratitude, and relief pour out of people as they experience reconnection to earth and tribe. This feeling energy is the carrier wave that allows ways of thinking to shift.
Growth of Permaculture
Standing on the shoulders of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the permaculture movement has inspired and trained upwards of 100,000 people worldwide over the past 23 years. Bill’s tireless exhortation to his early students was to go out and teach others. Many did and their students and student’s students continue to take up that charge. Though magazines and books have helped extend public awareness of permaculture, and for most of the past decade the Internet has extended the communications reach of many practitioners and consultants, teaching has always been the lifeblood of this immensely creative and vitally needed social invention.
Permaculture argues for the importance of individual action. This is one of its strengths: it empowers people to take action for change. In no arena of work is this more important than in teaching. The hundred thousand and more who have trained in permaculture are students of perhaps 500-1000 teachers. Everyone who teaches permaculture makes an important contribution to solving the global crisis. Obviously, with six billion humans on Earth and more arriving every day, we need more people skilled in the creation of sustainable environments. But we especially need more people to step forward to teach.
How can this happen?
If my own experience and that of most American permaculture teachers is of any guide, teaching is more easily undertaken in teams. The Permaculture Design Course curriculum is a substantial body of knowledge and few people can hope to master all the many elements of human settlement design, least of all at the beginning of their training. The intensive nature of the design course makes teaching it solo an arduous task for anyone. And not least in importance, students learn better when they get to hear the same message in different voices and different persona. I know from feedback from my students that I’m a good teacher, but people learn in a variety of ways, and my ways of teaching don’t reach everyone equally well. Others, including the colleagues I work with regularly, are better story tellers, better dramatists, more empathetic, charming, or kinesthetic. It takes all kinds of talent to present holistic systems design. This is also in alignment with the first–and largely unwritten–principle of permaculture: GET HELP!
And lest we forget, for teaching to be effective, there must be students! The whole premise of teaching for social change implies that if people were truly aware of the imperiled state of the world, and if they knew what they could do to bring about positive change, then most of them would make the effort. Since by many measures the world continues to drift toward catastrophe, the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that most people are unaware of the extent of the problems or lack knowledge of how to solve them. These are two distinct groups within the population as we shall see in a moment.