What can permaculture say to god?
I wrote this essay as part of a module on 'Spiritual Activism' in my Masters degree with the Centre for Human Ecology (Edinburgh). Though my ideas are still evolving and this is, in a sense, work in progress, I thought that it might be of interest to others and worth sharing with the wider permaculture community.
In the essay, I begin an exploration of the relationship between permaculture and spirituality, and argue that permaculture can, and does, fulfil a 'prophetic function' in the world today. I also argue that a more explicit discussion of permaculture and spirituality could be helpful to us as individuals and as a movement, and I hope that this essay might be a useful contribution to that discussion.
Thank you for your time and interest. If you want to get in touch with me, my email address is jessiemarcham at pasturesgreen.me.uk.
February 2005, Oxford
The beginning of the story
In many ways, it all began at a big permaculture 'design school' held last September. Whilst discussing some of the classes towards the end of the event, a small group of teachers and volunteers concluded that next time round, we should definitely include more on despair and empowerment work - on the psychological and spiritual dimension of permaculture activism. Not half an hour later, another volunteer was reflecting on the day with me. He argued that all this fluffy spiritual stuff we were teaching was going to put people off permaculture. We should, he said - at least in an introductory workshop like this - stick to the real practical tools and techniques of permaculture. So is there a place for god in permaculture teaching, learning and design? What can permaculture tell us about the spiritual? Should it say more or less, and does it really matter?
Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human settlements by following natural patterns. It is also a body of literature, an evolving philosophy of life, a shared language, a set of techniques and an international network of projects and people. For the purposes of this essay, I'll be thinking of permaculture as a movement - an emergent property arising from a combination of all these aspects, and no doubt containing a few interesting contradictions.
I ground my journey in personal experience of the British permaculture movement, but go on, in this essay, to draw from a variety of other sources. I use key texts from Mollison and Holmgren (the Australian founders of permaculture), as well as writings from several other permaculture designers, material from websites and a recently produced CD of permaculture-inspired music. I find that spirituality is deeply relevant to permaculture and that, to some extent, permaculture acknowledges this. I find references to a spiritual understanding of the world in permaculture literature, especially through the permaculture ethics, links to indigenous tribal cultures and the role of permaculturalists as activists. However, this has so far remained a largely implicit and unspoken understanding. I argue that as a core part of our lives and our activism, it could be helpful to make our discussion of God a little more explicit. And that's a process I'm starting right here - making the implicit a little more explicit. My thoughts and ideas are continuously evolving, and I see the purpose of this essay as not so much to persuade you of my own views, but to open up a conversation.
The initial focus of permaculture was in agriculture; Mollison and Holmgren observed the destructive effects of modern industrial agriculture and began to develop a radical and more sustainable alternative inspired by wild ecosystems, traditional indigenous techniques and the insights of ecologists such as Odum and Birch. Though permaculture today is clearly still focused on agriculture, land use and food production, the original remit was quickly expanded as it became apparent that creating a sustainable food system is intricately and inevitably linked to housing, transport, economics, law and other 'invisible structures' of human society and psychology (see, for example Holmgren pp xix - xxx, Burnett p4, and Mollison pp 1- 15) There are several interesting points here. First of all, permaculture has a down to earth but world changing agenda; it is about every aspect of how we live our lives. Secondly, permaculture is informed by modern scientific theory and ancient traditional wisdom; it draws on both rational and intuitive, subjective and objective knowledge. Thirdly, in synthesising these diverse sources in to a new whole, permaculture has created an explicit and coherent body of knowledge which can be effectively taught, learnt and applied.
One of the key aspects which distinguishes permaculture from organic agriculture is the fact that permaculture is grounded in a clear ethical basis. Everything we do in permaculture is informed by the three core ethics. These ethics are explained by Mollison in the Designer's Handbook thus:
"1) Care of the Earth: provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
2) Care of People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence.
3) Setting limits to population and consumption " (Mollison, 1988 p2).
He goes on to describe how these ethics were formulated after "Several of us researched community ethics, as adopted by older religious and co-operative groups, seeking for universal principles to guide our own actions."(ibid, p2) So these ethics are directly inspired by the spiritual insights of older cultures. At the same time, though, Mollison points out that the ethics are also based on "assessing our best course for survival" (ibid, p3).
And indeed, the ethics remain very much open to individual interpretation - care for the earth could mean anything from utilitarian 'stewardship', to the deep ecology perspective of identifying with Gaia as an expression of our wider selves. Patrick Whitefield, a British teacher and designer, is well aware of this ambiguity, and, interestingly asserts that "â€¦ both [views] are valid, and are views which can be held by the same person at the same time." (Whitefield 2000 p71). Similarly, Holmgren explains that whilst permaculture is "essentially concerned with improving the long-term material wellbeing of people" (Holmgren, 2002 p2), it also recognises that other life forms are "valid parts of the living earth with intrinsic value" (ibid p5). It seems that though permaculturalists are not afraid to profess their utilitarian and anthropocentric values, they also have a deep sense of the earth as alive and intrinsically valuable.
Permaculture as convergence of science and spirituality
And here we see again the paradox that appears throughout our discussion of permaculture and spirituality. From one angle, permaculture appears to be completely utilitarian, rational, practical and scientific in outlook. From another angle, it begins to seem much more spiritual, mystical and intuitive. Both Holmgren and Mollison propose that 'science' and 'spirituality' are beginning to converge, as "The more we understand the world through the lens of system thinking and ecology, the more we see the wisdom in spiritual perspectives and traditions" (Holmgren, p3) and "When we search for the roots of belief we come again and again to the one-ness underlying science, word, song, art and patternâ€¦" (Mollison, p99.) They both see permaculture as an important part of this gradual convergence, but Holmgren goes on to assert that permaculture is still situated firmly in the realm of science, pointing out that "Permaculture attracts many people raised in a culture of scientific rationalism because its wholism does not depend on a spiritual dimension. For others, permaculture reinforces their spiritual beliefs." (Holmgren, p3)
A useful illustration of this point can be found in the example of 'natural farming'. Natural farming has much in common with permaculture, but was developed completely independently by the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. Larry Korn studied with Fukuoka in Japan for several years and explains that,
"What is remarkable is that Fukuoka's natural farming and permaculture should resemble each other so closely despite their nearly opposite approaches. Permaculture relies on the human intellect to devise a strategy to live abundantly and sustainably within nature. Fukuoka sees the human intellect as the culprit serving only to separate people from natureâ€¦ Fukuoka believes that natural farming proceeds from the spiritual health of the individual... "Natural farming is not just for growing crops," he says, "it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings"" (Korn, IIEA website).
Fukuoka, Mollison and Holmgren appear to have arrived at similar places, though with a subtle but significant difference of emphasis and by rather different routes.
Permaculture as consciousness change
At one level, permaculture can be seen as a set of practical techniques and tools. Every half-decent permaculture 'tool bag' contains a chicken tractor, a bunyip, a keyhole bed and a whole range of other intriguingly named design solutions*. Many will also contain less tangible tools, such as the mindmap, the paste analysis and the think-and-listen. But at a different level, these classic permaculture techniques appear to be just the surface manifestation of a whole way of thinking, being and doing. Holmgren suggests that "permaculture has contributed to the spread of some innovative design solutions that illustrate permaculture principles, but that it has been less effective in spreading the systems and design thinking which underlies these solutions" (Holmgren, p xxvi). There's not necessarily anything wrong with directly importing practical techniques, such as a chicken tractor, without fully adopting or understanding the thinking and values behind them. In a sense this is one of the great strengths of permaculture - people can use as much or as little of it as they like, and perhaps gradually gain a deeper understanding or wider interest
But if all we do is to imitate, it's unlikely we'll be able to design and develop the complex web of locally specific relationships required for sustainable food production, let alone sustainable societies. Our systems thinking and our permaculture ethics (even in the more utilitarian form) present a significant departure from mainstream cultural norms. They tell a radically different story about how to live in the world, and this story operates not only at a practical and intellectual level, but at the deepest level of the heart and the psyche.
Many social and environmental activists have noted the underlying importance of cultural and psychological change in the creation of a more just and sustainable world. Barry explains how Bahro, prominent German Green politician and activist, "came to the view that if the Greens were to address the ecological crisis by radically changing society, they had to focus their efforts on psychological, cultural and spiritual levels." (Barry, 2001 p270). Others such as Naess emphasise the importance of a shift in consciousness to identify with a wider 'ecological self', arguing that, "If reality is experienced by the ecological Self, our behaviour naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics." (Naess, 1988 p29) So whilst permaculture is ostensibly about a revolution in land use, it is, perhaps, ultimately about a revolution in our culture, our mythology, and our individual and collective psyches. This, then, is permaculture as consciousness change.
Zone zero-zero, invisible structures and Earth Stars
Permaculturalists are expressing an increasing interest, in these social, cultural and psychological dimensions of activism*. Patrick Whitefield explains his approach in a recent interview with the Permaculture Magazine:
"The big problems in the world often manifest as physical problems but they're really emotional and social problemsâ€¦Most of my work in terms of sustainable food growing and technologies is on the physical level, but on our permaculture courses we always have an element of communication and community skills. When it comes down to it, these skills are probably more important." (Harland, 2004 p29).
Some permaculture teachers, notably those in the USA running a workshop format known as Earth Activist Training (EAT), place an even greater emphasis on the social and spiritual arenas, as their website explains: "At EAT, the principles and insights of permaculture are extended into progressive political organizing. The third crucial element is nature-based spirituality that connects heart and soul to one's work" (EAT website).
Concepts originally developed to explain land use and ecological systems are now being successfully used and adapted to explore what we term 'invisible structures'; economic systems, social psychology and community dynamics. The permaculture concept of zoning - concentric circles radiating out from zone zero in the house, through the veg garden and orchard to zone five in the wild woods - now extends inwards to recognise 'zone zero-zero'; that is, me as a physical, social and spiritual being (Burnett, 2000 p24). Another example can be found in the permaculture principle reminding us to use and value the diversity and creativity of 'edges'. Edge now refers to not only the ecotone between two different ecosystems, but also the interface between two different organisations or two different cultures (Burnett, pp 18-9, Holmgren, pp 223-37). Permaculture is also adopting ideas and techniques from other world change movements. Some British permaculturalists in particular openly use ideas and practices from Re-evaluation Counselling in their work, though much to the annoyance and disapproval of some others in the movement!
Perhaps the most explicit examination of spirituality and consciousness change in permaculture comes in the form of the recently released Earth Stars CD. This is a compilation of permaculture-inspired music sold to raise funds for the Permaculture Association in Britain. In a song entitled Faith in Gaia, Natalie tells us:
"So you wonder who you are
can't accept what you've been told
take your questions to your heart
let the mystery unfold
I don't know where to look
she [gaia] say look within
I feel fear for our lives
she say life it has no end
When you walk on through the fear
you see the truth was always here"
It should not come as any great surprise to find that music and poetry give us the most vivid insights in to our relationship with god (or goddess, in this case). As feminist poet Audre Lord explains "â€¦it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are - until the poem - nameless and formless, about to be birthed but already felt." (Lorde, 1984 p36) In poetry, art and music, we literally and actively engage in co-creating the universe. We cast what permaculture teacher and self-professed witch Starhawk would term a 'spell', or "a story we tell ourselves that shapes our emotional and psychic world" (Starhawk, 2002 p155)
Permaculture, prophets, shamans and bards
As architects and guardians of these spells, of permaculture as consciousness change, where do we stand?
Larsen explains that, in indigenous tribal cultures, "A subtle but essential role of the shaman was to serve as a technician of the culture's guiding mythologyâ€¦ the essential function of the shaman was no less than to guard, transmit and cultivate changes in the culture's inherent mythology" (Larsen, 1976, quoted in Feinstein, 1987 p 267) The prophets of the bible and bards of celtic culture fulfil similar roles, mediating between the everyday world and the spiritual or supernatural world and (re)creating the myths that these cultures lived by (see, for example, Trompf, 1977 pp 1-10 and MacIntosh, 2001 pp70-3). I am sure that many in the permaculture movement would vociferously object to being labelled as shamans, prophets or bards, uncomfortable with the explicitly spiritual, the suggestion of arrogance or other negative connotations attached to such a label. Trompf warns too that "â€¦in our day many of us are inclined to call great social critics by the name prophet, just because they demand change for the better" (Trompf, p1)
I would like to propose, though, that we think of permaculture as fulfilling a shamanic or prophetic function. Note the subtle change of emphasis here. I am not declaring any individual permaculture teacher as a prophet sent by God. Rather, I am suggesting that the permaculture movement, as a whole, potentially and actually, plays a role similar to that of a shaman or prophet; listening to the everyday material world, the rational, the ego and what lies beyond, to weave a new myth for us to live by. I say 'actually' because it is clear to me that this is what permaculture is already doing, even if only implicitly, partially or unconsciously. However, I also say 'potentially' because I see that if this is a game we're going to play, we need to play it much more consciously, and in playing it consciously we must play it both effectively and honestly.
Playing with fire
Engaging with consciousness change, with the re-creation and reaffirmation of the myths we live by, is not something to be undertaken lightly. These myths and spells are powerful, and one only has to take a look at Nazi Germany, a suicide cult or cigarette advertising to see the frightening potential of that power. Engaging these powers is also scary because it can be about challenging our deepest held beliefs and our very sense of who we are. At the same time, explicit discussion of these very real powers is likely to attract, at best, a few odd looks. Undertaking consciousness change, we might say, is like playing with fire.
But fire is elemental, an unavoidable part of the real world. We cannot avoid the fact that we are deeply and daily engaged in our myths and our spells, however unconsciously and implicitly this might be. The spiritual and material are inextricably bound up in each other. If permaculture is about creating a sustainable agriculture, then it's also about creating a sustainable culture, which means that it is also about myths and spells and prophecy. In the context of permaculture, the myths and spells are the means to the ends. I am not suggesting that the primary focus of permaculture should be personal spiritual growth or cultural engineering. I am saying that as good permaculture designers, we need to learn how to play with this metaphorical fire. And if we are to learn to play with fire wisely and well, we need to study it, observe it, talk about it, think about it and actively engage with it.
Barry, John (2001) Rudolf Bahro 1935 - 97, in Palmer, Joy (ed) (2001) Fifty key thinkers on the environment Routledge: London and New York pp 269 - 274
Burnett, Graham (2000) Permaculture - a beginner's guide, Land and Liberty: Westcliff On Sea
Earth Activist Training (undated) homepage of Earth Activist Training website http://www.earthactivisttraining.org/course.html, accessed on 05/02/05. Key figures in EAT are Starhawk, Penny Livingston-Stark, and Erik Ohlsen
Feinstein, David (1987) The Shaman Within: Cultivating a Sacred Personal Mythology in Nicholson, S (ed.) Shamanism: an expanded view of reality Quest: USA pp. 267 - 279
Harland, Maddy (2004) Of minimalism and humankind, interview with Patrick Whitefield, in Permaculture Magazine Permanent Publications: East Meon No. 42,
Holmgren, David (2002) Permaculture - principles and pathways beyond sustainability, Holmgren Design Services: Hepburn, Australia
Korn, Larry (undated), Masanobu Fukuoka's Natural Farming and permaculture, on the website of the USA-based International Institute for Ecological Agriculture
http://www.permaculture.com/permaculture/about/Fukuoka.htm, accessed on 05/02/05
Lorde, Audre (1984) Poetry is Not a Luxury, in Sister Outsider Crossing Press Feminist Series: Freedom, CA pp 36-9
MacIntosh, Alistair (2001) Soil and Soul - people versus corporate power Aurum Press: London
Naess, Arne (1988) "Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World" in Seed, John, Macy, Joanna, Fleming, Pat & Naess, Arne, Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings New Society: Gabriola Island, pp. 19 - 30
Natalie (2001) Faith in Gaia, in Aranya (ed) Earth Stars - songs of permaculture Permaculture Association (Britain): Leeds, track no. 6 (CD published 2004)
Starhawk (2002). Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers)
Trompf, Gary (ed.) (1977) Prophets of Melanesia Port Moresby: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies & Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies
Whitefield, P (2000) Ethics of Permaculture Design, in Goldring, A (ed) (2000) Permaculture Teachers Guide, Permaculture Association (Britain): Leeds & WWF(UK): London & Permanent Publications: East Meon
Also informed by
Devall, Bill and Sessions, George (1985) Deep Ecology - living as if nature mattered Peregrine Smith Books: Salt Lake City
Hemenway, Toby (2001) Gaia's Garden - A guide to homescale permaculture Chelsea Green: Vermont and Totnes
Marsh, C (2004) Honouring the Chicken - permaculture and green spirituality accessed at http://www.des4rev.org.uk/chickens.htm on 05/01/05
Shields, Katrina (1991) In the Tiger's Mouth: an empowerment guide for social action Millenium Books: Newtown, NSW
Starhawk (2003) Sustainability in a nutshell, on Starhawk's website accessed at http://www.starhawk.org/permaculture/sustainability.html on 05/02/05
As well as teaching material, email discussion lists and websites created by a huge number of groups and individuals within the permaculture movement, and informal conversations with various teachers and designers.
To add an article please send to email@example.com with the subject as "Web Article".