Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Teaching and Learning Permaculture: Surfing around the Internet the other day, Gabrielle chanced upon this debate on permaculture education, including such topics as “What should a PDC [permaculture design course] cover?” and “Who can teach a PDC?” which got us both thinking and talking. As far as I could see, the issues were about restricting who’s “allowed” to teach a PDC, which—although I can see merits in maintaining standards—made me very wary.

Why? Last year, a good friend of ours, and very experienced farmer, went on a PDC (in England) with some well-known permaculture teachers. The three teachers were either vegetarian or vegan and, as such, our friend told us, didn’t want to admit “meat” as a permaculture output of keeping chickens, so imposing their views on accepted permaculture practice / teachings. This made me think of how Christian mass, when held in Latin, had to be explained to the English-speaking congregations via a priest, who therefore became gatekeeper to the knowledge and could interpret “The Book” according to his own views, rather than allowing individual believers to interpret it themselves. If you think my religious analogy a mite strange, this is what the same friend said of her impression of a subsequent permaculture teachers course she recently attended—an experience that had apparently left her “sad, disillusioned and angry”—
The thing was that it felt to me as if permaculture was a religious order! Holmgren’s Principles = the Ten Commandments,
Meditation to me equates with prayers,
a mandela / altar,
songs of permaculture = hymns,
closing ritual ceremony = eeeek I want to get out of here and now!

To that, I could add Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual as The Bible; goodness, Bill’s even got a white beard and hair!

I’ve learnt a tremendous amount, specifically about stuff you’d recognise as permaculture, from some neighbours of ours—such as the venerable Annick and pig-farmer Paul—who’d never even heard of the word before we arrived in the hamlet. I've also been listening to podcasts from The Land Stewardship Project and hearing Minnesota farmers talking very clearly about what we'd recognise as permacultural principles, without once mentioned the word (we don't have a monopoly on these ideas, you know). I really like Patrick Whitefield’s invitation at the start of his excellent The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Manual for Britain and Other Temperate Climates: “Welcome to the experiment”. For me, a Permaculture Design Course, an Introduction to Permaculture course, or any permaculture course for that matter, is more about inspiring people to get involved rather than filling them with a prescribed amount of information written down in a heavy book. Even more so, as some of the stuff written down is more theory than practice and can be improved upon, even refuted. I’m beginning to think that permaculture should be ”open source”. More on that later, including some disturbing information I’ve discovered about that oft recommended permaculture panacea plant, the black locust tree (false acacia, robinia).


DOT said...

Excellent post and I like your idea of permaculture as an open source.

I remember the days when vegetarianism was taking off with Cranks in London selling its sacred selection of nut cutlets - very similar attitudes abounded in terms that you were either baptised with holy lassie and accepted the principles that a vegetarian life was not one based on taste or enjoyment, or were damned as a pleasure seeker.

Daniel Halsey said...

I agree, Open Source Permaculture is a great idea. Unfortunately, unlike software, anecdotal information is a weakness in Permaculture, as it many times is passed on untested and applies to limited situations. Our ecosystems vary and are far more complex making results vary greatly from place to place. Sticking to the principles of Permaculture keeps it general enough to broadly apply to many biomes and climates. The big manual is dense and at the same time simplistic. Diversity in everything helps break that dogmna. Getting information from many sources and applying them to your own situation takes discernmnet and I use and teach the Permaculture principles and back them up with science, case studies and the application on our own property. Permaculture prophets are afraid the information will be diluted and go the way of sustainability, biomimicry and green, being that they have lost their true meaning after being coopted by the media, people and groups pushing their own extreme agenda. On the other hand, let us keep the extremists, under close scrutiny and apply moderation to the methods until they are proven.

Val Grainger said...

I like the idea of open source permaculture rather than fixed ideas and dogma.
It is very true that anecdotal information is a weakness in permaculture and its that very problem that could be its undoing......permaculture principles have to be very flexible and as they are very applicable to every situation I think permaculture prophets have nothing to fear except fear itself!

Anonymous said...

Hurray to Open-Source permaculture! I agree with you with all my heart. Like any Open-Source project, it should be everyone's to share, improve upon or mess up with. And we could call a permaculture design course tailored for a specific biome / personal dogma: a permaculture distribution (as with Linux)!

The only risk would be to lose the meaning of the word Permaculture, as essentially every mildly sustainable agricultural practice could call itself Permaculture having borrowed bit from the Open-Source Permaculture corpus, as is currently the case with the words 'organic', 'sustainable', 'fair trade'. As far as I am concerned, the word does not matter all that much, and we already see many avatars of Permaculture under another name (Rabhi's agro-ecology, some agro-forestry practices, Jeavons' biointensive methods, Hazelip's synergistic agriculture). Even Google will end up understanding how all these are semantically connected and how they all partake to the common wisdom of Permaculture or whatever you want to call it.

Magnus said...

You mention a problem with black acacia trees... We're total beginners with this growing things on land thing (permaculture, or whatever label we use) and we've had a friend over who is a permaculture fan (disciple could be a more appropriate word). Anyway, he couldn't get enough of the local black acacia trees (mimosa in Portuguese) that are seen as a weed here. Clearly they are leguminous, and probably good for shade and mulch, and nitrogen etc. But I'd be very interested in your findings of their less helpful aspects. M