I spend so much time talking, doing, sharing, teaching Permaculture that I sometimes start to feel like I might lose the ability to remember what it’s like to not look at the world this way. I often tell folks in my workshops to get ready to put their Permaculture eyes on, and be prepared to not be able to take them off afterward. For many of us it is a great relief; many people who are drawn to Permaculture feel a sense of joy when we first discover that there is a word, a set of tools, a global movement that describes what we have felt in our core our whole lives and yet have not seen manifested in the society around us. And even better, Permaculture presents tools and strategies for living those truths, for making them real, instead of just listing and describing the ways and places in which they are missing. When I first learned about Permaculture I was so grateful to find that I was not crazy after all, that other people think and live these things, have been doing so for longer than I’ve been alive (take that, first year economics!). I recently heard another person echoing that sentiment back to me during a workshop, and it reminded me of how empowered I felt and still feel experiencing it. I think what raises this feeling in folks is that it’s actually inside us all along, but we’ve lived our lives not being able to acknowledge it because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught about everything.
Many folks say that Permaculcure is inherently revolutionary, and while I agree, I don’t think it’s because of something inherent to Permaculture so much as it is because of something that’s inherent to being human. So I’m going to go ahead and say something that might be a little revolutionary in Permaculture circles. Are you ready? Okay, here it is: Permaculture is nothing special. What do I mean by that? I mean that what I think makes Permaculture so powerful, and so effective, is that it doesn’t present us with anything that we don’t already know. Rather, it gives us (or perhaps gives us back) a lens to look through that lets us reorganize what we know into patterns and relationships that make sense at a deep level because they work with nature, and with our nature as collaborative beings. We are not meant to be passive consumers kept separate from the earth systems that support and sustain us; to be always competing; to be isolated from each other and the earth. There is a place deep inside us all that cannot be fooled into thinking that exploiting the earth and the other humans that share it with us can somehow be good for us. Given the chance, a voice wells up from that deep place that sings for us all. For many of us, Permaculture provides that chance.
Permaculture as a design methodoloy is a bit like what Western notation is to music; it’s a common language we can all agree on to make it easier to collaborate on something we all have inside of us. But nobody would really confuse the notes on the page for the fullness and life of the music, or think that you need to read the notes to make music. Similarly, Permaculture doesn’t describe something external to ourselves, it doesn’t give us something we don’t already have. Every culture, every person has music, whether you ever learn to read the notes or not. Every person is born in relationship with the earth, and through that to each other. Permaculture, sometimes described as the art of creating mutually beneficial relationships, is about claiming, or reclaiming, those relationships.
The culture, strategies, and language of Permaculture as a movement give us a common language to talk about rebuilding those connections in the absence of that function in the consumer-capitalist culture that is busily consuming the world. In that context, we are taught fragmentation, competition, hierarchy. We are taught that all the objects and actions that are important and all the knowledge that we need to possess are external to ourselves. This is what is called by Paulo Freire and others the “banking model” of education — the idea that the students are empty of knowledge and value and come to school to become knowledgeable and valuable, to be “made something” of. This model cripples our ability to act autonomously and responsibly in the world by teaching us to depend on experts, authorities, and external motivations in order to act. It disempowers us by rendering invisible our birthright of relationships based on mutual inherent value. For me, learning and teaching Permaculture is the best way I know to undo that damage in myself and others, to regenerate our ability to act in right relationship to the world around us not for altruistic reasons, but because it is what keeps us alive. More than that, it is what being alive is.
For those of us who are traumatized by being raised in the dominant culture of destruction and scarcity, Permaculture presents a language we can share to learn how to get back to our birthright of connectedness and relationship with self, earth, and our global human family. But it doesn’t give us those things, it doesn’t create those connections and relationships. They are already all around us. As a Permaculture educator, my job is not to initiate people into some sort of elite and powerful knowledge or to “make something” of people so that they can save themselves and the earth from themselves or from others — because we are the earth, plain and simple. Permaculture doesn’t teach us anything we don’t already know or have the capacity for as an inherent part of being alive. It simply provides a forum, a language, a space to explore what the dominant culture tries to silence, ignore, stamp out. The fact that so many folks gravitate to Permaculture and take it out into their communities to begin changing the world from where they are with what they have is evidence of the indestructible truth of our connection to each other.
In this way, one can see that lots of folks are “doing Permaculture” without even realizing it, just like people make music without being able to read a note. I often worry that my role as “teacher” of Permaculture has the potential to replicate the patterns that we are trying to challenge, by replacing one set of authorities with another. I think it’s important in all our work to remind ourselves that we are not offering anybody something they don’t already have or handing out any answers. We can create tools for asking the right questions, but the answers are already inside each of us and will be different for everyone every time. The power of Permaculture to transform the dominant culture is in this very uncertainty and nonuniformity, in its ability to provide a framework we can agree on to collaborate in exploring our connectedness. Our job is not to invent things that we don’t already have, but to help ourselves and others find ways to participate in systems that are manifestations of that connectedness instead of artificial structures for trying to deny it.