“Permaculture is notoriously hard to define. A recent survey shows that people simultaneously believe it is a design approach, a philosophy, a movement, and a set of practices. This broad and contradiction-laden brush doesn’t just make Permaculture hard to describe. It can be off-putting, too. Let’s say you first encounter Permaculture as a potent method of food production and are just starting to grasp that it is more than that, when someone tells you that it also includes goddess spirituality, and anti-GMO activism, and barefoot living. What would you make of that? “
Toby Hemenway, What Permaculture Isn’t- and Is, 2012
Permaculture is ‘simultaneously a design approach, a philosophy, a movement and a set of practices’, it is a broad concept, and it is somehow difficult to communicate this complexity in a few words to somebody who has never heard about it. This is the peculiarity of Permaculture, which sets this discipline apart from the other farming and agricultural approaches. Its complexity could be intimidating and a certain degree of commitment is required to understand its basic philosophy, ethics and principles. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Permaculture is prone to be misunderstood, or worse stereotyped.
It is very important for permaculturists to be aware of these misconceptions, take a step back, try to understand their origin and then address them.
So, what are some of the most common misconceptions about Permaculture? And what is the best way to respond to them? Here is a semi-serious list (which do not claim to be complete) of the most common stereotypes about Permaculture, as well as some counterarguments that Permaculture supporters could use to shed some light on this complex discipline.
1) It is a concept that lack scientific evidence.
Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture, was not very interested into turning Permaculture into a new academic research field. He wanted the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to be easily accessible and spreadable all over the world, avoiding therefore the institutionalization of the discipline. This is a major reason why Permaculture is not popular within official educational settings and an explanation for why Permaculture has been attracting pseudoscientific, experiential and believes-driven approaches. Another reason is the fact that Permaculture has always been more focused on participation and action, neglecting therefore the need of basing the discipline on solid scientific research. However, in the past years the academic world has started investigating Permaculture from a scientific point of view and some universities have implemented projects, demonstration sites and gardens where Permaculture is applied with the specific aim of conducting research and producing some scientific evidence on the effects of its implementation. Some Northern American and Australian universities are leading the movement towards an academic officialization of the discipline. Moreover in the past decades, within the Permaculture movement itself, many institutions have been created with the specific aim of researching the discipline in order to bring scientific recognition to its practices. The Permaculture Institute of the UK is probably one of the most famous examples, as it had been officially recognized also by the World Health Organization. Last but not least, many practices like sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, agroecology, regenerative agriculture, etc … whose validity has officially been recognized by the scientific community, present a set of practices and approaches that are found in Permaculture and are currently taught in many universities, colleges and official educational institutions all over the world.
2) It is a sort of religion/cult, Bill Mollison is its prophet, rituals involve not flushing the toilet and building votive spirals with rocks and herbs.
Permaculture is not a religion. It does not claim any higher and ultimate truth, does not inquire the ultimate nature and purpose of the universe, does not involve any devotional and ritual observance and it is not a set of beliefs but rather of practices, ethics and attitudes. Could Permaculture be a cult? The world ‘cult’ is defined as: ‘A particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies’ or as ‘An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers’. Even though it is undeniable that within the broad and diverse Permaculture movement some cult dynamics can be found, by looking at the definitions of cult it is clear that it is not possible to reduce Permaculture to a manifestation of such phenomenon. Moreover, the largest part of the Permaculture movement is working with a scientific and evidence based approach, striving for a global recognition of the validity of Permaculture ethics, principles and techniques. In the table below, published for the first time in an interesting article by the title of as ‘A Critique of Permaculture; Cleaning out the stables’ that appeared in Permaculture Magazine (1997), two strands of Permaculture – ‘Smart’ and ‘Cult’-are presented.
As the intention of Mollison and Holmgren was surely not to establish a new age cult, but rather spreading a “philosophy of working with, rather than against nature”, we can graciously leave the cult-like features of Permaculture to whomever enjoys them and simply focus on the more scientific ‘smart’ approach.
3) No one is making a living out of it, it is not a productive farming system.
There is a lack of proven business models in Permaculture, but this does not mean that successful projects are impossible to be found. Here are some names of successful permaculturists that could be mentioned whenever somebody argues about the financial profitability of different scales Permaculture farms projects.
- Paradise Lot/Food Forest Farm, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates
- Whole Systems Design, Ben Falk
- Miracle Farms, Stefan Sobkowiak
- Food Forest (Hillier, South Australia), Annemarie and Graham Brookman
- New Forest Farm, Mark Shepard
- Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin
- The Krameterhof, Sepp Holzer
- Zaytuna Farm, Jeoff Lawton
Moreover, as these are some of the most well known permaculturists worldwide, most probably there are many people out there making a decent living out of their Permaculture farm without being exposed to any media coverage. However, it is important to mention that Permaculture is based on slow solutions and does not rely on the logic of conventional agriculture, where everything is made available in the shortest time possible but it also comes with an expiring date because in its linear unsustainable projections everything has a bubble, or maximum carrying capacity. Needless to say, looking into Permaculture purely for its financial side will not take somebody very far, but a decent living that will allow a family to gather enough economic surplus to thrive is a very concrete and achievable possibility. After all permaculturists should keep in mind the concept of ‘fair share’, one of Permaculture’s three fundamental ethics, and in a world where the minority accumulates too much and the majority is left with crumbles, we should definitely rethink our priorities and revise our definition of wealth. line
4) Too much to integrate and to know, it is a very demanding holistic approach.
Permaculture just ‘clicks’ for some people, as soon as they realize the holistic approach of this, their brain starts contemplating with awe the fundaments of this discipline that has finally put into a reputable, well organized and recognized form all the rambling thoughts that have been haunting their minds for almost a lifetime.
Permaculture is a holistic approach to life and when a person first encounters this disciplines realizes that it includes not only those subjects that usually fall into the realm of the scientific side of human knowledge (agriculture, ecology, forestry, environmental sciences, biology, physics, etc …) but also those subjects that are usually labelled as ‘humanities’ or that stands somewhere in the middle sharing characteristics with both branches (economy, sociology, psychology, philosophy, architecture, etc …). This does not mean that experienced permaculturists are a sort of living version of wikipedia walking around the garden with a shovel in their hands. They are normal human beings that might know a lot about natural buildings but not much about microbiology of the soil, or maybe they are experts horticulturists and could grow tons of food in their backyard, but maybe do not have the skills or practical experience to organize educational workshops for kids in that same garden.
Permaculture is not about absorbing a tons of information to become knowledgeable in almost everything, it is just a tool that helps us create the environmental and social awareness needed to build fairer societies and healthier communities. It is a discipline that teaches our minds to perceive the world around us from an holistic perspective by questioning the efficiency of the extreme sectorialization of knowledge that is happening nowadays. Permaculture is a mindset, it is a way of living and gardening that address crucial modern issues that threaten the future of people and the planet, and it is such a broad discipline that you may even be practicing some Permaculture without even knowing it! But yes, Permaculture is demanding, not in terms of the amount of information that you need to assimilate to be able to start your Permaculture garden, but rather because it is an ethical approach to life and we may be pushed to question some of our unsustainable habits.
5) Permaculture courses and workshops are too expensive.
Yes, Permaculture is slowly becoming a business and courses and workshops can be very expensive. However, there is still a lot happening out there that is affordable and accessible to everybody. Scholarships for low income students are not uncommon and can be found online, some institutes and teachers offer discounts in exchange of some work, generally related to the board and accommodation of the students during the course, other courses are non-residential, which helps a lot in cutting extra costs for accommodation and there are also some complete Permaculture design courses that are available for free online, they will not provide you with a certification but the information you will be given is tailored on the curriculum that was developed by Bill Mollison back in the 70s. And if you want to get some practical experience, be wary of the expensive internships that some Permaculture farms offer, and have a look at WWOOFING for example. Permaculture is a grassroots movement and a discipline which was meant to be as accessible as possible, and even if the web tends to give more visibility to fancy and expensive options, there is still a lot out there that is available for a reasonable amount of money or for free.
6) It is some some kind of kooky, hippy idea
Yes there are hippies in Permaculture, you will definitely find people who dance under the rain, realign chakras with crystals and claim to see people’s auras. Also plants and vegetables’ auras sometimes. The beauty of Permaculture is that it attracts a whole spectrum of diverse human beings and if you want to engage in the Permaculture movement, you need to be ready to accept diversity. It is a global movement, it is expanding and it is trying to become more and more inclusive. This tendency towards universality and its capacity to engage people of different backgrounds are some of its main strengths. Therefore, if you have problems in respecting and interacting with different ideas, political stands, languages, religions, cultural backgrounds, looks and food habits, then Permaculture may be a steep terrain for you because this movement embraces a wide variety of people from all over the world. It could definitely get challenging from time to time, but overcoming these differences to protect our environment is very important. After all, hippies or not, we all share the same planet.
7) But… isn’t it just organic gardening?
No, Permaculture is not “just” organic gardening. First of all, Permaculture is not just agriculture. It is a design approach for building sustainable communities, it is based on principles and ethics and, as mentioned above, it is a complex discipline as well as an holistic mindset. Secondly, also the approach to land management is different in an organic and in a Permaculture farm. A Permaculture farm would never produce only one type of food. Permaculture is often called “lazy farming”, because it does not solely focus on annual crops but it tends to give importance to perennials, those plants that live and produce through several seasons. This means that part of the harvest doesn’t have to be sown and nurtured year after year but rather just maintained. Thirdly, many farming techniques commonly applied in organic farming, like conventional wasteful irrigation systems, are a clear example of the fact that organic agriculture does not necessarily guarantee that the veggies in your plate were produced in a eco-friendly way. The list of differences is quite broad and involves also different approaches to the use of organic pesticides and fertilizers and ploughing the soil, practices that are not encouraged in Permaculture.
Although the concept of Permaculture is gaining more credibility and official recognition all over the world, there is still some resistance towards this discipline, especially in the scientific and academic fields. If the audience is particularly skeptical and resistant, it could be possible to talk about Permaculture without mentioning it at all simply by referring to a set of disciplines that are strictly connected to its principles, ethics and techniques (agroecology, sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, ecosystem restoration, social justice, environmental justice, green social work, natural building techniques, etc.. ). In any other case, the best solution would be adopting and open attitude towards any possible critics, doubts and negative remarks. Being convinced proponents of Permaculture does not mean becoming its blind followers. It is very important to always balance the wonder for the power of regenerative agriculture and the beauty of nature with some skepticism. It is crucial for Permaculture enthusiast to honestly assess the criticism and develop solutions. These criticisms should in fact be a source of motivation to move forward, improve and further research the scientific fundaments of the discipline. “The problem is the solution”, as Permaculture wisely reminds us.