Critiquing Permaculture – A Deeper Look Into Permaculture – Part 2


Permaculture Voices Episode 102


A Critique of Permaculture, Cleaning Out the Stables by Peter Harper [2003]

You could argue that these people are rather narrow-minded and the message hasn’t got through to them yet. But you could not say that of Robert Kourik, a much respected figure in the PC movement, and whose book Designing Your Edible Landscape – Naturally is to be found in all the PC catalogues and on many a PC bookshelf. Contributing to the Solar Catalogue, he made the following remarks. It’s worth quoting him at length:

“In 1978 I read Permaculture One…. A good permaculture is supposed to be a food-producing ecosystem (garden) that is humanly designed, requires little work to sustain, mimics the diversity and complexity of a forest (or other natural system), is heavily based upon perennial food plants, and is self-perpetuating and permanent. With Bill Mollison’s first US lecture in 1980, sponsored by the Farallones Institute (where I was then directing the Edible Landscape Program) interest in permaculture took off like lamb’s quarters on a heap of moist horse manure.

In the late 1970’s I was very excited about permaculture – especially its attempts to develop integrated, sustainable food gardens. Gradually, though, my enthusiasm waned. Like most of the people I’ve watched cycle through the permaculture ‘experience’ over the past 16 years, I found the details either to be lacking or counterproductive.  One of the big draws of permaculture, especially to well-educated nongardeners, is the lure of less- or no-work gardening, bountiful yields, and the soft fuzzy glow of knowing that the garden will continue to live on without you. Yet these same ‘advantages’ often prove to be the biggest letdown for many people.”

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Comments 19

  1. Diego,

    I am half way through listening to your latest podcast. I want to commend you for what you are bringing up, but I also want to point out something I think perhaps is incorrect. You stated that the small increments that would be made if everyone had a small garden would not matter much in the bigger picture.

    I believe that it would. I do not deny the underlying factors of your claim, but consider in a desert in California that has robbed countless amounts of water that many of the vegetables consumed in this country are grown. And out of season or during many of those vegetables being shipped in from other countries. This costs enormous amounts of energy in order to acheive. If you forced these farmers nearly out of business or into different production I think it would be a great service to the world. Or if we cut down on the amount taken from these areas the world would in fact be a better place.

    Such an idea is utopian at this point because it does not consider the system as a whole. The fact is the current paradigm we live in is vastly unsustainable. This was more or less discovered and written about since 1972 when systems thinkers like Donella Meadows wrote a book about the increasing population and its effects on the systems of the planet. The paradigm is wrong because of how our society gives valuation. So almost anything we do at this point will be rendered nearly moot, because many people who would buy from more sustainable activities are most likely expressing a desire to limit their guilt. If we consider that most American understand climate change is taking place, but how they cope with their own guilt and implication in the matter is to deny human responsibility for it.

    So it perhaps that we are utilizing a systems approach more or less incorrectly and based mostly on the conception of a hunting and gathering society rather than the world we currently occupy. The stratgies are great but the deeper thinking of a system approach that ignores the other systems it is apart of we cause us to fall apart and become unsustainable ourselves unless we are independently wealth or some critical life altering event takes place.

    For example, I have some land and I enjoy doing agrilcultural work on it. My work is informed more but theraputical needs that needs to sustain my lifestyle. I am not independently wealthy, but am disabled from the war. So I work on a design and try to understand a future where I might need to depend upon my land for more than therapy and the healthy food I harvest to compliment my grocery store visits. But I kept coming against issues in considering how would I be able to sustain a livelihood if I had only this land to depend upon.

    What I realize is that I have to consider I am attempting to build a system within a system within a system. This talk of building communities is great and I think is necessary. But this too is problematic. When you live in a conservative rural area, where individuals have been making money off of their land in a certain manner they do not want to hear about anything different–they need to see it work to be interested in a change. They need incentives for that change that can only come from saving money, increasing profits, and seeing a real world working model. Otherwise, they will deny anything they do is wrong, even if deep down they know or suspect there might be issues with some of the things they do in practice.

    I think this is more or less your point. More and more I understand Mark Sheppard’s point, but in many of his talks he does not explain his sytem in holistic functioning; he does not say he has people on his land producing different commodities, that he under pays people to pick his hazel nuts, or anything like this. But as I understand those are the facts. So while he critiques and asserts his system he too while challenging othrs to make something better, is selling something that is not quite real. That is not meant as a put down, rather a realization of just how difficult it is to acheive real practice and principles within a system that is frankly broken, or breaking aoart as we speak(the larger system of our culture).

    I have not yet heard of any of these farmers able to raise their commedities on the sustainable or permaculture side do so without something that to me is unsustainable and perhaps a questionable practice; that is their realiance and use of so called interns. No one as of yet has come froward saying that they are able to work the land while paying people appropriate wages for their work. I would argue any job one has you can learn from it, but no one argues that you should be paid a below market wage for the privilege of obtaining knowledge. But yet another unsustainble wrong in our culture is the commodification of attaining knowledge, while ironically more of it is free now than at any time.

    This presents a second issue with the system that wants to sell us unecessary designed obsolescence items, while playing a bit of sleight of hand by managing the costs of items needed to sustain life–namely food. I believe Joel Salatin points this out and uses it to justify the prices of his commodities. It is true, however, that the real price of food items is not reflective of reality. Thus, migrant workers are underpaid, and many farmers struggle and perhaps would not derive income without subsidies. Without considering this larger system in our system designs we are doing a great disservice to our expectations and filing in our designs.

    So how do we move forward, rethinking the world using the words and concepts of the current paradigm in order to create a new paradigm? How have these things happened historically? These are some of the questions we have to answer. One way currently I think we have to walk this tightrope of requiring individual profit while operating as part of scoialist systems, such as Mark Sheppard describes with Organic Valley.

    Thankfully Darren is attempting to address some of these issues. But we must first train ourselves to think big and small at the sametime, and find a way to have realistic goals. Sometimes I think some writers in the interest of selling their intellectual property have purposefully ignored these issues, or spoken abut them so abstractly as not to point to their real concerns.

    Interesting thing I have also noticed, is the people who often oreach to not look for magic bullet solutions attempt to sell or pins hopes on magic bullet solutions. A real paradigm shift is no simple thing. It is like asking a tadpole what is like to be a frog. An adult what it was like to be an infant.

    Thanks for all you do Diego.

    1. Chris De Joe, with all due respect, I think you may be suffering from a little bit of cognitive dissonance. The wage system is precisely an artifact of the mode of food production we know as “annual agriculture.” If you’re willing to reject the premise of annual ag — thus all its artifacts like any existing economic system, call it capitalist, socialist, whatever — and view permaculture as orthogonal to command and control annual ag, then your dissonance may dissapate. However, if you view permaculture as a kinder, gentler version of agriculture, i.e. annual ag done right, then the dissonace will likely continue.

      A couple of links you may find useful…

  2. Funny that you should bring up the no work garden. I’m literally doing a class at the local library next month titled “Easy Lazy Food Gardening” where I will talk about my permacultureish Ohio garden (mulch, low till, little watering, cover crops, perennials, self seeding annuals, grow what grows easy, etc). I’m not saying that it’s no work though I will rebrand the work as exercise. When I talk to people about gardening, the two things they complain about is that weeding makes it a lot of work and that they don’t have time to garden. My design helps with both of these problems as it does have upfront work (when the individual will be much more excited) but allows for less during the season besides resowing and reaping. The voices in my head have been debating about how much to include about permaculture as I’m will have just finished up my PDC the weekend before this presentation. I’m one of those mid-lifers who had much experience before taking my PDC, so I’m not so starry eyed and ambitious (SO agree with your opinion on when to take a PDC).

    It wasn’t until my girlfriend said she didn’t like gardening growing up because of all the weeding, but noticed I rarely weed my 1500 square foot garden. But of course the techniques I’m employing aren’t necessarily PC – even the hugelkultur beds 🙂 And those wouldn’t been built had I not had the “problem” of an abundance of rotting wood sitting around attracting groundhogs. With this said, I’m leaning towards not introducing PC in my talk as it might just confuse this particular audience. Maybe an advanced class would be a better place for such material.

  3. I will start my comment by saying I have never taken an official PDC and do not hold that particular certification, but I have read all the PC literature I can put my hands on. The PC info has been layered on top of years of organic gardening and “farm” experience from childhood and on my current property.

    I guess I never wholly swallowed ALL the PC concepts “hook-line-and-sinker” but have picked and chosen the concepts and practices that best served my particular situation at the time. No one can deny that projects like “greening the desert” have done a huge service for communities in badly degraded ecosystems, and if more concentrated projects like that one were employed on super-ag farms to restore those environments and/or degraded desert landscapes, the world would be a much better and more productive place.

    Hearing Peter Harper’s and your comments have given me some solace that my choices, to take the bits of info in permaculture that work and leave the ones that don’t, have been the right choices. Thank you. I look forward to hearing more of your commentary on the subject.

  4. Diego,

    Nice thoughts. A couple of points…

    1. We may have to change our ideas of what kinds of foods we “like.”
    2. Hate the game, not the players. Have to meet people where they are at. Particularly if they already have boots on the ground trying to survive the current system. Being militant about permaculture (or anything else) won’t help anyone.

    Professionally, I totally understand where great ideas often times aren’t based in reality. Mark Shepard’s lectures about dealing with the realities really resonated with me. The other aspects of permaculture I haven’t personally experienced.

  5. js290. I am not suffering from cognitive dissonance. Do you own any land Js? Have you spent lots of time and money working your land? With all respect, as it would facilitate a conversation.

  6. Diego,
    I am pretty sure that you don’t intend to do this, but it sounds a bit like you are throwing out the baby and the bathwater in your podcast.
    That said, I don’t think it is the fault of Permaculture for people to be nasty about the current conventional systems.
    People get judgmental over anything, even just being judgmental can make people mad at you:-)
    I do believe that we need to be gracious to the conventional folks of all stripes. Most of these people are great people, doing what they know how to do. I do not think that conventional ag is good or sustainable. But it is what these folks know and nobody wants to be told that they are wrong. Just ask my teenagers! And of course, old men are worse:-)
    So, you ask, “where are the results?”
    I believe that the results are sparse, but available. Salatin, Sheppard, Judy, Savory, Lawton, Tim Young and many others can point to real successes in real time.
    When you have to farm 1000 acres to make a $75,000 a year living, you farm 1000 acres. If you can do the same money on 25 acres, you certainly might do that instead. But it has to be something that is fairly repeatable for conventional farmers to venture into it. No doubt about it.

    I have been a software engineer for 27 years now. I will be giving that up this summer to start my own business in farming. I have some capital (though a lot more would be better:-) ) along with my wife and a grown son that wants to join us for the ride. But then, we aren’t your everyday folks. We are the country club demographic, highly educated, and well informed. As I mention to my peers what we are about to do, I get two reactions: 1. A questioning of my sanity. 2. A desire to be able to join us in what we are doing, and requests for telling them more about what we are planning on doing.

    It will be an adventure. If we go broke before we turn a profit, it will be unpleasant, but there is a LOT of brain power and ability on our team. We have it covered in sales, marketing, design, engineering, economics, presentation, and even growing stuff. If we aren’t to be successful, it can’t be done. In 2016, I’ll let you know… If we are successful, I’ll show you how we did it. If not, I’ll tell you why we weren’t.

    I guess that is putting my money where my mouth is.


  7. Sorry Diego
    I give it a 3 out of 5.
    I guess permaculture teachers don’t explain the differences of theory and reality.
    In reality every site and job has its own set of variable so its your job to adapted the theory to the real world solution.
    Only a person that works in education can live in pure theory everyone else has to live outside of pure theory gathering real world data to feed back to the academics so they intern can build better theories. I agree with you that permaculture need less purist.
    I would disagree with your chicken course vs PDC as it pertains to a persons goal.
    If your goal is to make a living money producing chickens then yes go straight to the chicken course and nothing else because they have in place proven model on how to produce commercial chickens.
    If your goal is to make a living producing sustainable healthy chickens then I would go to a PDC/own perm research then a chicken course so you can see the current methods of producing chickens threw a different perspective.
    The sad fact is once a person starts doing something one way they usually don’t change.
    The GA beef rancher is a rear case he completely changed the way he ranched because he knew if he didn’t when he died his daughters would simply sell off the farm. So forced with being the last rancher or changing he choose change. Lucky he had learned everything there was two know about standard ranching so he could make one change at a time until he found a model that worked.
    I don’t think if I sank all my money into one way of farming that worked that i would want to take a risk of doing something “greener” just because i felt it was better for the world at large. Thats a lot of risk for a non-personal gain with a high risk of failure.

  8. When I moved to my little farm 4 years ago I was just another city (suburban) kid that managed to realize the dream and buy some acreage. My farm (I like to call it a farm because it’s my vision of happiness) is 5.6 acres. Right away I started planting trees, some food producing and some not. I made mistakes in placement and many suffered my ignorance and perished. However a few of them lived. In particular I started a small orchard of mixed fruit trees. My knowledge at the time said “cut down all the existing trees and plant fruit trees”… so I did.

    A couple years later (Spring of 2014) I took a PDC. This new idea had me dreaming big, but also upset that I had made the decision to cut the trees down to plant the orchard. I know that I have made lots of mistakes… but a year later looking at how my little orchard is shaping up I’m happy that I cleared that small part of land for this purpose. It is going to be attractive and will serve to educate others.

    Another challenge I have is that my wife likes things “tidy”. Sometimes this frustrates me, but she represents most of how the general public looks at things. She forces me to stay realistic in how I approach my design. She is, after all, always right 😉

    I guess what I’m getting at is this… I was that NOOB that needed Permaculture to help me sort some things out, but I’m glad that I was able to get my land a few years before getting the PDC. This allowed me to make some mistakes and see how some things work. The mistakes aren’t over. I’m real good at making them.

    Right away after achieving the PDC I knew there was a layer of BS that had to be cut through, but I also love to embrace what I believe Permaculture is. The 3 ethics are vital. Observing, Interacting and taking the time to observe again is also vital. There is no silver bullet. I do hang the banner of Permaculture on my humble blog site, but it is accompanied by 2 other ideas. “Permaculture, Homesteading, Real Life”. For me, just permaculture would be shallow, just homesteading would be very hard work so the real life (double meaning) is found in combining those two things.

    This series of podcasts speaks very clearly to me because part of what has held (and still holds) me back is the idea of “not being permaculture enough”. I’ve even had some people tell me that the things that I’m doing aren’t Permaculture. Well, I can’t see how this is since I am practicing “Earth care, People care, and Return of Surplus to regenerate my system”. Give it any name you like (I like Permaculture), but when a person lives by these ethics always testing and trying different methods to solve the challenges of human existence in harmony with nature they are practicing Permaculture.

    My wife and I are actively searching for ways to make our little farm profitable so someday I can practice and educate full time. Some of what we end up doing probably won’t look like Permaculture to some 🙂

    Thanks Diego for having this discussion. Stay positive.

  9. I am really loving this series on critiquing permaculture. I was one of those young ‘uns who came to permaculture with starry eyes. I’ve been reading about and following permaculture, as a movement, for about 4 years now. I’m 28 years old and I don’t have my own land…yet. But, when I do get it, I want to set up a fruit and herb farm business and I want that business to be restorative, not destructive. I would agree that permaculture is more of a movement than anything else. I think John Liu’s talk at PV2 showed that. Permaculture (as a design methodology) has been used since the beginning of time by the Earth itself. It’s not something that humans created. It’s more of us getting out of the way and allowing nature to work how it’s supposed to. I think the human component of these natural systems needs to be about figuring out how to take from the land in a sustainable and inconsequential way. We’ve also screwed up so much land that we need to learn how to set the land back up for nature to restore.

    The more I think about it, the more I really think permaculture is a movement. It takes so many different techniques from so many backgrounds. I don’t think permaculture is a design methodology…rather I think it’s just a struggle for people to make the best decisions they can with the 3 ethics in mind.

    Great podcast series and it really got me thinking!

  10. The Ag bashing and detracting push-back totally reminds me of Paleo.

    There’s the total Paleo Nazis and the standard diet people who get totally turned off by them and generalize all of it by the experiences with the Paleo d***heads.

    Its usually a cycle. Initially there’s a strict overexcited newbie adherence. Eventually it turns into snobby, better than you, criticism. (Many get stuck here). Then there’s actual real life experiences and other influences that creep in and allow a sort of evolution of thought. This is where more practical daily application starts to apply to the individual.

    Honestly, most of the people who get Paleo the most, as it applies in their life and situation, just stop talking about it. They just do it.

    You can interchange ‘Paleo’ and ‘Permaculture’ above and see my correlation, it applies the same…. to me.


  11. Chris De Joe. I appreciated your comments.
    If more people become aware of the real work that it takes to create high quality food, they put more appreciation on the food and resources required to have it.
    Change can happen rapidly when an idea gets enough momentum to hit the tipping point. people need to see models of success so that they can emulate and improve upon them. very few people lead, but will follow when others around them are doing the same thing. Find the tools that work for you, discard what doesn’t work in your situation. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get where you want to be overnight.

  12. My first impulse was to argue with you, but I think that I’m actually mostly in agreement and all I would be actually be arguing about is the definitions of terms. That’s rarely productive.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Post

      Yes, but easier said that done. Is the cost of capital too high to bridge that gap? My gut says yes. And will someone actually lend into a system like this. Probably, but at a high rate.

  13. Diego,

    This series is aptly timed for me. I’ve been inducted…hooked…taken what have you….by permaculture. I’m 24 years old, graduating from a private university with a degree in business. Two totally different worlds to be honest. But straddling the tension between the “old” paradigm and the “new” paradigm has manifested in many different ways throughout my life. I recognize this as part of the context of our times.

    My father owned a native plant nursery business for over 20 years but recently closed down his business. So I’ve now got access to 74 acres of land. Degraded sure, but I count this as a blessing…including the 18,000 sq ft. of indoor greenhouses. My brother is studying forestry in Montana. I’m a big picture kind of guy with an affinity for nature, interests ranging from philosophy and religion to soil microbiology. So I’ve got so much going for me it’s hard not be starry-eyed!

    With respect to the issue of scale, one way I’m PLANNING to approach this regarding building healthy soil is dividing up some small plots, taking a baseline and having a control, and testing some things out that can all be applied economically at scale. I’ve got some great ideas about what will work, but I’m taking iterative steps to test it while keeping in mind that I need to be able to do broadly. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    I’ve seen that to some people permaculture seems to be more of an art. Almost and artistic expression of designing with living systems. This has a soft side to it. It takes a lot of the “invisible” structures into account. (You also note a number of problems this has caused for PC)

    Some people, it seems perhaps fewer, treat it more like a design science. It appears to me this is the kind of road that has “analysis by paralysis”, textbook rigorous approaches etc.

    For me, I hope to not hold such high standards that I can’t reach them. If I start a food truck business that vertically integrates my farm and displays food miles…great. I achieve a good margin, I’m financially viable, I’m providing nutritious food…not all bad (if I do it of course). If the truck runs on veggie or bio diesel…even better!

    Another take-away for me from this series affirms my previous intuition. Don’t start a farm that has PERMACULTURE in the name. Geoff Lawton (I’m taking his online PDC which ought to be fruitful grounds for you to discuss) says that he’s found it necessary to “meet people where they’re at” in terms of explaining permaculture. If someone asks me, “where did you learn all this stuff?” I’ll refer to a book, or an academic research article or a youtube video…probably. If someone asks me, “Why does this fit together so well? Everything seems to support everything else!” Then I’ll say, “well, this is a permaculture design”….etc

    I’m not looking to spread the dogma that Permaculture is the answer to all humanities problems. I’m looking to nourish the land as much as it nourishes me, to share that abundance in the marketplace and connect with like minds. I think a lot of the methods, or approaches, or other disciplines that permaculture has and will lead me to explore will prove to quite a journey. Hard sometimes, but so worthwhile.

    I don’t necessarily think that if the whole world practiced permaculture as it is in the design manual we’d be better off. The world needs more advanced bio-tech. And permies would be wise not to wall themselves off from the other facets to this paradigm shift. I’ve come to believe that perhaps some people who are happy providing their families with most of their own food and appreciating the farmer that gives them bulk calories is necessary. Perhaps both parties need to live sustainably for some other people to invent novel ways to deal with other problems that we all face in common.

    I absolutely commend your bravery in addressing these issues within permaculture. If biodiversity and evolution have played together for so long on this planet and survived. Permaculture can perhaps celebrate this diversity but also adapt and evolve as necessary (take out the garbage Diego!). You have a such a voice in this 3rd wave of the “movement”. But you shoulder this responsibility like a champ man!


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