I have been having a lot of conversations lately with Permaculture colleagues about our teaching work, and in particular how we pay ourselves for that work. There seem to be two schools of thought on this. One: teaching is hard work and I’m not going to do it for nothing. Two: Teaching is only part of this work, and we shouldn’t be trying to make money off of it but should be making it available to our communities. The result of this split, which I don’t think we talk about enough in Permaculture circles, is that there is a vast gulf in the price that students pay for courses taught by teachers from the first school of thought versus teachers from the second.
In the course of a conversation about this with a colleague, I was given this quote from Permaculture co-originator David Holmgren on the subject:
“I think it is important that experienced teachers do get some remuneration commensurate with the enormous effort in presenting a well organized and taught course. However, I think there are also substantial dangers in establishing a career structure for teachers which rewards teachers for just teaching. Having to do other things to stay sane, earn income, maintain humility, connection to the earth and continually learn are essential. “Professional Teachers” who do not garden or in other ways face the enlightening and frustrating realities of living and working with nature are in grave danger of re-inventing all the problems we seek to overturn”
I mulled this over for a few days, because while I agree in principle, there were a few things about it that stuck in my throat. I decided to respond to them here in hopes of furthering this conversation within our movement.
First of all, I absolutely agree that the practise must come first, and that our teaching must evolve from and always be rooted in our practise of Permaculture. The last thing we need to do is to start to reproduce an academic elite — there is already enough elitism and power dynamics in the Permaculture movement, and we need to be dismantling those instead of building new ones.
That being said, it’s pretty easy for Holmgren to say that there shouldn’t be “professional teachers” when he himself is an established professional, and a world-famous one at that, who has the social mobility and elite status to make a good living as a Permaculture consultant.
Holmgren is a baby-boomer aged white male, in a country with incredibly low population density, one of the only places in the world with lower population density than Canada. While now nearly as urbanized as Canada, when Holmgren began practising, Australians were mostly rural people. He has worked primarily in rural environments, where there is ample land that people don’t know what to do with, and there is high demand for Permaculture consultants because of the land and demographic particularities of Australia, and because the movement is older and more established there.
I live in a country where 90% of the population lives in cities, and where relatively few people have even heard of Permaculture. Speaking for myself, I also live and work in a city, at least for the present moment. In Canada, there is a sharp income divide between urban and rural populations; resources are concentrated in cities, primarily in the hands of white male baby-boomers who are established professionals in whatever their field. I’m a thirty year old woman, just starting out trying to make my way as a Permaculture practitioner. I’ve been focussed on Permaculture as my career for about five years now, and while I do some consulting work — I just came from doing a consultation, actually — the bulk of my paying work is in teaching. I do a lot of on-the-ground work, but that work itself doesn’t pay for itself. Rather, it showcases my skills and spreads an understanding of what Permaculture is, which creates the awareness that drives demand for my skills as a consultant and, primarily, as a teacher. There are a few reasons for this:
In urban areas — and remember that 90% of Canadians live in urban areas — there is a high degree of top-down control of land stewardship. Almost all decisions about land use, buildings, and community design are funnelled through a small elite of investors, property developers, and municipal and regional governments that all operate in a revolving door with one another. These are highly white, highly male, highly capitalistic spaces from which Permaculture represents a radical departure, a complete shift in paradigm that cannot help to be seen as anything but a threat to the personal power of those elites — because it is. It’s not that we as Permaculture practitioners are necessarily seeking conflict with those structures, but rather that those structures are such anathema to ecological principles that the conflict is inherent in their basic formulation. Short answer: Permaculture is not likely to be welcome in those spaces any time soon. That change will come, but it will take some time and a lot of education before it does.
At the ground-up level, there is a lot of interest in Permaculture. But as a general rule, these are not large-scale projects, they don’t represent access to huge swaths of land, and they are often temporary in nature, or require the participants to be positioned in such a way that they are willing and able to put themselves in conflict with the power structures described above. Often they are initiated by people in relatively marginalized communities — renters, at the very best, and often low-income people that have little to no access to a piece of ground they can call their own even temporarily. Of course, there are always exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions as opposed to the rule. The average urban homeowner experiences barriers to participating in Permaculture because much of what is sensible and ecological is at best in conflict with prevailing ideas about esthetics, maintenance, and proper uses for urban spaces, and at worst is flat out illegal. (The Farmhouse could tell you all about that…)
Because Permaculture is, at the moment in Canada, and especially in Canadian cities, new and strange and presents a fundamental departure from the ideological foundation that our built environment is based around, we will never be able to make our living as the kind of consultants that Holmgren seems to want us to be until we do the teaching first. We must educate first, so that the understanding spreads and space opens up for the work that we do. Certainly we must also practise in equal measure, and much of the education is simply in the doing, in leading by example. But not all.
There is also a tendency in Canada to think that if you love what you do and it’s good for your community, you’re supposed to do it for free. We have this culture of “volunteerism” that is deeply embedded in capitalist notions of what motivates people and assumptions about altruism and self-interest posited as opposing factors in why people do the things they do. If we truly get into an ecological understanding we can see are not opposites but rather the same thing — what’s good for our community is good for us; Earth Care, People Care, Fair Shares. Because of this idea of self-interest vs. altruism, and because so much of the work that’s good for community is feminized and hence not seen as work but rather as essential characteristics of a particular person (meaning, something that they’ll “just do” so they don’t need to be paid or appreciated for it), our society continually underpays its most important work. Activists are particularly bad for this, setting poor boundaries for ourselves and not respecting the boundaries of others, pushing ourselves and our colleagues to work too hard for too little pay just for the privilege of having a job that we don’t hate. We do it because we think that we’re saving the world this way, that if we don’t do it then nobody else will. But if you were on the outside looking in at our movement, and everyone was overworked, underpaid, overtired, and burned out, would you want to get involved? We keep ourselves continually understaffed in the activist world in general by not making sure that the needs of ourselves and our colleagues are met. This ideology also limits the participation of those in more precarious or marginalized positions — I fully acknowledge that I’ve been able to follow the Permaculture path that I’ve followed because I do not have children to raise, debt to service, or anyone really counting on me except me. I also have a high degree of social mobility granted to me by my relative social positioning and the stable family background that I come from, relatively free of the cycles of marginalization and poverty that so many people in my community struggle to free themselves from. If we want to build a diverse movement, we can’t expect people to work for free. That’s a very liberal, middle-class way of looking at the world that doesn’t meet the reality of many people in our communities whose voices need to be at our table.
Having been involved in popular education and unschooling work for a decade now, and having been marginalized and abused through the hierarchical and destructive education system that we stagger under here in Canada, I can say with conviction that we need good teachers, and those good teachers need to make a wage they can live on in order to do the work. Education in what Permaculture is and what it can do is the pioneer species of mounting an effective Permaculture movement here in Canada, especially in our cities. It takes a tremendous amount of personal energy to hold space for the sort of cultural change and personal growth that needs to happen so that Permaculture can really take root in our society, and that energy needs to be acknowledged and appreciated and appropriately compensated. Certainly we need strategies to do that which are more complex than “people should pay more for courses” and that embrace the diversity of people we want to see in our courses. We can do that and still pay our teachers a living wage, still recognize the vital role that teachers play. Teaching is a calling like anything else, and not everyone who is a Permaculture practitioner is, or should be, a teacher. The skills and energy required to create truly life-affirming learning environments that teach, excite, and empower must be valued for the truly vital role they play in the times of global crisis that we find ourselves in.
Holmgren’s statement above certainly contains cautions to keep in mind; I agree that a teacher that doesn’t also practise can quickly become out of touch with reality. But to paint all “professional teachers” with same brush as elitist academics is a bit insulting, first of all, and doesn’t acknowledge how important it is that people do the work of teaching so that others can come behind and do what Holmgren does in the space that the teaching work has created. Holmgren himself, along with Mollison, started out from the position of incredible privilege afforded to white male academics, and this statement seems grounded in that particular reality and doesn’t reflect the broadening diversity of this movement. Holmgren didn’t have to make his way in today’s world of widening gaps between those who have access to resources and those who don’t. I hope that we can complicate the way that we look at these issues, and make sure that we take care of our educators and mind-changers so that we can all find the space in our society to do the Permaculture earth-healing work that is so desperately needed.