Cooking up sustainability – permaculture style

Posted by sustainable on May 14, 2012 

Permaculture is on a mission to create sustainable settlements, and we take a popular education approach to making it happen. We’re like ‘applied socio-ecological-systems design’ for the rest of us, or put another way, we make vitally important concepts and skills accessible to everyday people. Since the publication of Permaculture One (Mollison and Holmgren,1976), many thousands of people have been trained in permaculture design through two week design courses, specialist courses and other trainings, and many more have picked up a book and got on with it themselves. Some of the students have degrees, many don’t. Illiterate villagers in Cambodia, displaced peasants in El Salvador, and angry residents getting by on high deprivation estates in Glasgow join privileged Californians and middle class consultants from Hampshire on a mission to make things better.

Now in use in 130 countries around the world, permaculture is behind some of the world’s most advanced systems of sustainability and influencing new initiatives like the Blue Economy and Transition Towns. In this wider discussion about ‘sustainable learning’, I want to reflect on what I think some of the vital ingredients have been for permaculture’s impact.

Recipe for a transformation towards a sustainable culture

Take a large world, multiple languages, eco-regions, climates, cultures and perspectives. Throw in a variety of interconnected social, economic and environmental challenges. Then add:

1. Ethics and a shared mission. Engage fellow learners by identifying a shared ethical framework that can drive each person as both independent actors, and also as team players working towards a common goal.

2. ‘Ground rules’ of sharing and cooperation. Remind learners that we can’t possible know everything ourselves, or have the skills to do everything ourselves, so lets learn and value the skills of sharing and cooperation. Learn together, work together. No one will achieve sustainability on their own.

3. Nature as model. Foster the ability to ‘think and act like an ecosystem’. Recognise eco-literacy as a fundamental skill required by every human. It’s a cultural shift from ‘universe as machine’ to ‘universe as living process’. It’s inevitable, go with it. Play games, use the whole body, write poems and stories, take more walks in nature, make it normal.

4. Self-reliance, local adaptation and innovation. Foster a respect for autonomy, self-determination and local initiatives. Value a diversity of approaches and recognise the value in people working it out for themselves. One size does not fit all. Local conditions matter, so local people need to be at the centre of their own innovation for sustainability.

5. Commitment to the whole learning cycle. Observe and interact, or put another way use an ‘action research’ / ‘action learning’ approach. “Just do it” doesn’t help if you are doing it wrong, so ensure that the cycle of planning, doing, observing and reflecting is embedded in our learning and practice. A key challenge for academia is how to connect to the action, so we can maximise its potential to support local learning and action through increased access to detailed observation and analysis.

6. Communities of practice. If you want to learn to knit, hang around people that knit. Promote learning by doing, and foster networks and opportunities for new learners to work with existing practitioners. Recognise the value of practitioners as key sources of learning and innovation. Support them to innovate, learn from their practice. Each ‘sustainability action’ is an opportunity for learning. How many people does it take to change an eco-lightbulb?

7. Get political. We need to change the rules of the game. To do this we need people with critical thinking skills and independence of thought, and the courage to speak and act against the status quo. So we need to nurture leadership skills and raise awareness of the challenges as well as the opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong, permaculture certainly doesn’t have it all right. One of our key limiting factors at the moment is a general lack of empirical data and systematic monitoring of the results of our work. Essentially we are still learning how to utilise the whole action research / action learning cycle. This means there is an opportunity to further accelerate our learning through increased reflection on ‘what works’. But we are often getting to the limit of what we can do at a grassroots level, so we need new alliances with scientists.

To tackle this, plans are being developed to create an ‘International Permaculture Research Protocol’ that would use a series of agreed headings and a variety of monitoring systems to enhance local and network learning and generate consistent data that can be aggregated for wider analysis. We are keen to hear from academics and practitioners alike who are aware of scientifically rigorous and  simple to use methods to assess factors such as soil health, carbon storage, biodiversity, participation and social well-being.

Permaculture is an ‘action learning network for sustainability’ full of pioneers and early adopters. There is an opportunity to use the nearly 40 years of practical experimentation and our global network of practitioners to accelerate progress towards a more stable society working in harmony with the living planet. To do that we need to connect with new partners for the next cycle of learning.

Get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Andy Goldring,
CEO, Permaculture Association

P.S. The International Permaculture Research Survey (Part 1) is now online. If you are researching permaculture or related subjects and can spare 10-15 minutes, please go to: for the survey itself, and for information about the survey.