I wrote a version of this post quite a while ago, and have been sitting on it ever since. Various criticisms of permaculture and permaculturists had been accumulating in my thoughts, but I don’t take parricide lightly (permaculture is, after all, how I got into all of this). Then the ever-excellent Land Magazine ran some critical articles about permaculture, followed by some predictable onslaughts from the eco-panglossian brigade, and I started to feel protective. But anyway, here for what it’s worth is my post on the good, the bad and the ugly of permaculture.
At Vallis Veg we’re fortunate to have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of WWOOFers and HelpXers wishing to volunteer to work on our holding. Often they’re young people with no special interest in farming or environmental issues who are simply looking for a cheap way to travel, and I’ve tended to look preferentially for people who can demonstrate a genuine interest in the work – one such criterion being the possession of a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). However, I’ve increasingly been noticing what we’ve started to call ‘PDC syndrome’ in some of these volunteers, to the extent that I’m beginning to think twice about taking them on.
PDC syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:
- a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
- a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism
- likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
- a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
- a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
- a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
- a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
- a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
- a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
- most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations
I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it. And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.
From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:
- a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
- a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
- a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
- a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
- an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems
I do struggle with these aspects of the permaculture education process – particularly the fixed ideas around what constitutes a ‘permaculture approach’ and the tendency to substitute a religious for a critical mode of thinking, with its concern to enact what X says rather than to think about what X has said, engage with it critically, and then apply what’s useful from it to one’s own situation. But I’m not going to turn my back on the movement, because I think its basic principles are sound when thoughtfully applied, because generally I like its cheerful can-do amateurism, because I usually find the way it imagines different possible ways of living invigorating, and because there are signs that it’s sharpening up its act. The movement could probably have done a better job historically in subjecting its claims to some kind of experimental scrutiny, but the fact is that it’s been a grassroots movement without the resources to do much proper research, especially when the methods it typically adopts are complex and multifaceted (on which note, more news of the Vallis Veg Experiment soon). Actually, I’ve recently been in touch with Rafter Sass Ferguson who’s doing an academic study of permaculture over in the US – his liberation ecology site looks like a really promising project in sorting through the permaculture chaff from the grain. I haven’t had a chance to assimilate what he’s doing properly yet, but his site seems to me to be one of the ‘act sharpening’ signs I mentioned above.
So – well, I do despair of the kind of permaculture-principles-as-holy-law approach showcased by Angelo Eliades and some of his supporters in my debate with him about perennial crops (my key alarm bell phrase: “you’ll never understand permaculture”; its equivalent: “you’ll never let God into your life and you will die an unforgiven heathen”). But I think there’s enough self-critical dynamism in the movement to compensate. I’m not especially proud of my exchange with Eliades, whose condescension got right under my skin – but his condescension does actually raise interesting issues. As I recall, I mentioned that I was a ‘struggling farmer’ and Eliades proceeded to belabour me with comments to the effect that I was obviously struggling financially because I wasn’t properly applying permaculture principles, citing various successful ‘permaculture farmers’ such as Joel Salatin. Now, from what I’ve read and seen of Joel I think he’s fantastic, and the same goes for other permaculture farmers like Sepp Holzer. But I’d like to make three points about the nature of such success:
- It stems partly from being an innovator and opening up a new market, such as Joel’s grass-fed chickens. Kudos for the originality, but normal market forces apply here. As more suppliers join in to fill the niche, the economic returns start to falter, which is pretty much where we’re now at in the local veg box scheme movement. These innovators haven’t found some golden goose to make food production intrinsically profitable.
- It also stems partly from being good at self-promotion and marketing a new product. Again, kudos for the success – it’s what you need to do as a self-employed small farmer. And I suppose you could say at a stretch that talking a good game is a permaculture skill. But being good at marketing doesn’t really get to the heart of farm economics or agro-ecology.
- If I could make so bold, part of the success also stems from a certain credulity among the permaculture public, who too rarely ask tough questions of different farming systems. Joel Salatin’s chicken operation is no doubt very productive, but it does rely on bought-in commercial feed, which enthusiasts tend to gloss over. Sepp Holzer has created an amazing-looking farm with some clever ideas that make people want to visit it, and that alone is worth celebrating, but I think the results are open to question on input/output grounds.
Anyway, one good outcome of my debate with Eliades was that it prompted me to look more carefully at the literature on perennial cropping, with the result that I’ve now formalised my thinking on this in a journal article – all it needs is a home to go to, and I’ll report back on that soon. Perhaps this illustrates what David Holmgren means when he says ‘obtain a yield’. Hmm, guess I’m still a permaculturist at heart.
Towards the end of the PDC I took 13 years ago, my esteemed tutor admonished his assembled students with the words “You don’t know anything”. At the time it struck me as a rather harsh note in an otherwise empowering course, but now I see his wisdom. I know a hell of a lot more now than I did back then, but I realise that I still don’t know anything. I only wish a few more PDC graduates realised they don’t know anything either…