By Abby Maxwell
I was first introduced to permaculture during a permaculture design certificate course in Ecuador, led by three men: two American and one Ecuadorian. At first, I was stoked to be learning in a womxn-dominant class, studying this beautiful body of knowledge in the abundant, tropical ecosystems of Manabí, Western Ecuador. But I became uneasy listening as the two white American instructors overlooked the Indigenous foundations of this knowledge, giving full credit instead to Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the movement’s Australian founders. During discussions, some members of the course and I brought this issue up, but the instructors responded apathetically, rejecting any form of politics spoiling the sunshine-and-banana-circles vibe of their course. They had worked hard to be able to live out their dream in this food-forest jungle oasis, so they didn’t want to be self-critical of their positions as white people living on appropriated land, capitalizing on appropriated knowledge. Over my next two years of working in permaculture spaces, the violence in the movement’s anti-political front became glaring. The philosophy of permaculture, with its basis in Indigenous biodynamic agricultural practices, has vast potential for social and ecological transformation. However, the movement fails when its predominantly white, male leaders evade self-criticism and use the teachings of permaculture to solely empower and enrich themselves. This article is a call for the critical shift towards a politics of intersectionality within the permaculture movement, and an exploration of the ways that this movement veils its own position within structures of whiteness[i]. I present solutions that foster a radical transformation for our ecosystems and communities, guided by the wisdom from which permaculture was derived.
Permaculture was born in an outraged response to the destructive legacies of the industrial and green agricultural revolutions of the postwar world. Founded by Australian agriculturalists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the movement emerged as a direct opposition to monoculture production, claiming to be the first of its kind as a system of ecological design for food production systems. In the early 1970s, Bill Mollison began studying the ways of Indigenous groups – the practices that allowed these communities to live off the land for millennia. He examined Indigenous techniques for years and, in an effort to spread his findings, “synthesized [these] existing sustainable agriculture principles into what they termed “permaculture”[ii]. He wrote a book and created an official design certificate course, forever inscribing this powerful Indigenous knowledge with his name. The philosophy is rooted in three core ethics – earth care, people care, and fair share – and 14 principles, such as ‘observe and interact’, ‘use and value diversity’, and ‘use edges and value the marginal’[iii]. The design system is compelling: it aims to foster relationships of reciprocity within ecosystems, as well as between people and their communities. Moreover, this ancestral wisdom that upholds the philosophy of permaculture has immense emancipatory ecological value. The challenge at hand lies in the way this knowledge is being framed and tangibly utilized, which perpetuates the appropriation of Indigenous culture and the furthered erasure of marginalized voices.
The movement is also failing in its absence of diverse voices and actors: whereas “women’s contributions to [permaculture] are immense, … they are under-represented in forms of dissemination and recognition”[iv]. This blatant lack of diversity demonstrates the ways that this white male leadership has shaped the movement from the beginning[v]. Whereas permaculture claims to cherish diversity, human monoculture is the movement’s reality. In an interview, Bill Mollison declared that “permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests”[vi]. However, the very essence of anti-politicism is in being unbiased or politically ‘neutral’, which requires objectivity or the absence of experiential difference. This declaration of anti-politicism in permaculture allows for the ongoing silencing of non-‘neutral’ voices and, thus, a layer of insidious and unquestionable white and male hegemony.
With the rise in permaculture design certificate (PDC) courses, people with a couple thousand dollars to spare now have unreserved access to this knowledge. But, as I found throughout my PDC course, the movement’s white amnesia is found in the omissions in Mollison’s books, courses and conferences – when the sources of the philosophy go unmentioned and uncontested. When non-Indigenous instructors “start cherry-picking parts of Indigenous thought that appeal to them without engaging directly in (or unambiguously acknowledging) the political situation … [they] immediately become complicit in colonial violence”[vii]. Thus, whereas Indigenous worldviews and systems of agroecology would serve a crucial role in transforming global food production systems, the appropriation of this knowledge by settlers for personal profit is a potent form of colonial violence.
Land is the essence of discussions of food and agriculture, as well as of settler-colonialism and Indigenous rights: land use, land loss, and land theft. Historically, land has been the primary source of capital since contact between colonists and Indigenous peoples. Since the capitalist ends of the colonies required utmost efficiency in its productivity, Indigenous erasure was legitimized “by claiming that Indigenous people did not know how to use land ‘properly’, dismissing Indigenous farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering practices as inferior”[viii]. Despite its ethic of caring for the earth and people, permaculture is not an exception to the violent nature of the settler-colonial project: if the land on which the swales are dug is unceded territory, and the mouths that are being fed are largely those of white settlers, this material and epistemic violence persists. Furthermore, the leftist and progressive stereotype embodied by typical members of Western alternative food movements portrays them as “incapable of participating in the overt racism one can normally find within radical right extremist white-bodied organizations”[ix]. Thus, all critical exchange is stifled and the permaculture movement continues to grow with accumulating force, further marginalizing the outspoken voices that its core ethics claim to support. The irony is stark: permaculture design is fundamentally based in the valuing of biodiversity and the margins or sites of overlap within a system. Why are human beings seemingly left out of permaculture’s concept of ecosystem – why isn’t the diversity of human experience and identity valued, and why aren’t marginalized people given the utmost value, as the species of the garden’s edges are? As Judith Butler argues in her criticism of the feminist movement, its emancipatory aims “risk failure by refusing to take account of the constitutive powers of their own representational claims”[x]. When the dominant voices in permaculture fail to take into account the hegemonies inherent to the movement’s foundations, not only do its environmental goals risk failure, but the movement itself engages in complacency and the perpetuation of hegemonic thinking.
Strategies for Fostering Change
Permaculture presents methods of living and growing food that do not just sustain life, but foster regeneration; a crucial need in today’s ecological crisis. It promotes the restoration of ecosystems, utilizing space, energy, and resources intelligently to avoid waste, and distributing its abundance of produce equally. In the face of our climate crisis, dispersion of permaculture practices could play a large role in remedial action. However, only with a move toward an intersectional and anti-oppressive politics within permaculture spaces are the social and environmental aims of the movement feasible. Furthermore, the use of this system of design to take back and take up space by and for marginalized peoples has the capacity to disrupt and dismantle hegemonic powers. But transformation requires “a truly politicized view which exposes, problematizes and resists the ongoing reproduction of harmful power relations”[xi]. Permaculture is based in nurturing dynamic relationships and valuing diverse members of an ecosystem to foster abundance. Through this logical framework, it is clear that the movement’s capacity for ecological restoration is furthered when the voices of womxn, racialized and otherwise marginalized communities are centered.
A deeper emphasis on Indigenous knowledges and worldviews is essential for the shift in Western cultural narratives and ideologies, but this cannot occur without centering Indigenous people. It is evident that welcoming more people into the permaculture community means that this philosophy and its ecological impact can be larger, but “whether or not people of color choose en masse to embrace permaculture, will depend on the movement’s ability to acknowledge and honor those cultures, living and ancestral, whose existence paved the way for this knowledge to be synthesized, shared, and practiced”[xii]. A politics of intersectionality requires a shift in dominant systems of thought: systems that tend to dichotomize, compartmentalize, and essentialize. Through a focus on empathy, all practitioners of permaculture – those acting in dominant spaces and those living at the margins – can foster accountability in their communities. One tangible manner that this epistemological shift could be implemented in permaculture spaces is through an obligatory introduction to anti-oppression training in permaculture design certificate courses, as was proposed by the People of Color Caucus at the first North America Permaculture Convergence in 2014[xiii]. Programs of settler re-education through active acknowledgment and discussions of land and the origin of permaculture practice would bring meaningful transparency into the food movement. This project of unlearning and re-thinking would be an obligatory component in shifting permaculture towards a more intersectional politics.
Taking Space, Creating Alternatives
Through a framework of accountability and accompliceship, the most powerful primary action that members of dominant permaculture spaces can take is educating themselves and others[xiv]. It is time that all permaculturalists take responsibility, and this necessarily involves “learning from and with each other about our differences, and embracing settler discomfort as a motivation for change”[xv]. This is where the community based holding actions – the disruption – come in. Land and resources must be reserved for these communities at the edges: within these physical spaces, practices of permaculture and Indigenous agriculture methods connote permanence: the putting down of roots. This is a long-term solution that, over time, fosters sovereignty and empowerment within disenfranchised communities. Power dispersal precedes the possibility for the accomplice-led redistribution of land and resources, but with meaningful unlearning it is feasible. One of these necessary resources is intellectual: accessibilizing permaculture knowledge would allow for radical holding actions. With increased knowledge and ability, marginalized communities would have the resources to implement permaculture farms, allowing autonomy in self-sufficiency. When the people leading the charge are the community members themselves, long-term wellbeing of people and their ecosystems is achievable. However, these solutions involve my assumption (as a white settler) that members of marginalized groups have any desire to engage in a movement that is white- and male- dominated. I have made this assumption by listening to the voices of permaculturalists that do live on the margins: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) womxn in permaculture that are making experience-based claims about the potential of this movement, and why it is failing. In her piece Living Naturally: A Black Woman Practicing Permaculture, Kirtrina Baxter expresses this contention.
And so as I have been blessed also to meet more people of color in permaculture over the last three years, we are asking ourselves and each other: how is it that these permaculture principles speak to me, yet the movement does not?[xvi]
Furthermore, in arguing that permaculture has emancipatory value both for people and our planet, I am making an assumption rooted in my experiences, as I have seen the power that this philosophy has when it comes in contact with the land, and with passionate people. Permaculture is a rapidly growing movement because it presents a gleam of hope; it feeds people and the soil, and it is founded on the systems of agriculture that Indigenous groups have lived off of for millennia. In its emphasis on fostering relationships of reciprocity within and between communities, permaculture provides alternatives to social and ecological degradation. If dominant members of the permaculture movement engaged intersectionally with the use of permaculture as a means of resistance against greater industrial and systemic forms of oppression, the movement could have truly radical transformative effects. As environmental activist Joanna Macy says, “We call them holding actions because they attempt to hold the line, to buy time for systemic changes to take place”[xvii]. The time is ripe for this movement to begin to engage further with the human members of its diverse systems as we wait for those systemic changes to take place externally.
Permaculture is important: this design system presents a dynamic and energy-efficient mentality to not only grow food but to exist in the world. It is a philosophy of life; a framework through which one can be a better member in a relationship, in a community, and on a planet. But the maleness, whiteness, and coloniality that permaculture was born out of and upholds today needs to be actively dismantled. The ethics and principles of this design system neglect one important truth: humans live in an ecosystem, and our diversity is valuable too. Both environmental wellbeing and social justice require balance, and one will not be realized without the other. Thus, without direct self-criticism as a means of fostering social equality, any environmental movement will be hindered. If the permaculture movement actively engages in intersectional politics, the possibility for socioecological emancipation will vastly increase because, through a dismantling of whiteness in these spaces, more voices will be uplifted and more hands will be in the dirt.
- The terms white and whiteness will be used as extensions beyond phenotype and flesh, as a way of being in the world: “white in the security of their unspoken claims, white in the confidence of their apparent neutrality, white in the belief that theirs is the image of the world worth living.” See Erin Manning, “Toward a Politics of Immediation” Front. Sociol, 2019.
- Trina Moyles, “Permaculture or Spermaculture? Confronting Patriarchy in Permaculture and Alternative Food Movements” Briar Patch Magazine, 2015, https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/permaculture-or-spermaculture/. Accessed October 23, 2018.
- Erin Meyer, “The 12 Design Principles of Permaculture as Rules of Living”, Medium, 2017, https://medium.com/land-and-ladle/the-12-design-principles-of-permaculture-as-rules-of-living-e9fc0176dd16. Accessed January 21, 2019.
- Moyles, “Permaculture or Spermaculture?”
- See Moyles, “Permaculture or Spermaculture?” where she argues that “a simple Google image search of “permaculture instructors” brings up over 50 per cent more white males than female, Indigenous, or visible minority instructors.”
- Scott London, “Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution – An Interview with Bill Mollison”, in Green Living, 2005.
- Zoe Todd, “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism”, in Journal of Historical Sociology29.1 (2016): 18.
- Lauren Kepkiewicz, “Pedagogy lost? Possibilities for adult learning and solidarity in food activism” in Studies in the Education of Adults47.2 (2015): 189.
- A. Breeze Harper, “Vegans of Color, Racialized Embodiment, and Problematics of the ‘Exotic’”, in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (2011): 221.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (Routledge, 2002): 4.
- Leah Temper et al., “A Perspective on Radical Transformations to Sustainability: Resistances, Movements and Alternatives”, in Sustainability Science13.3 (2018): 751.
- Baxter, “Living Naturally”, 7.
- “People of Color Statement from the North American Permaculture Convergence” Permaculture Design: Decolonizing Permaculture (2015): 3.
- I am using the term accompliceship as distinct from allyship: it is a call to action, a call for active accountability and trust building. “Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism. As accomplices we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other, that is the nature of trust.” See “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex”, Indigenous Action, 2014, http://www.indigenousaction.org/accomplices-not-allies-abolishing-the-ally-industrial-complex/. Accessed October 23, 2018.
- Zoe Matties, “Unsettling Settler Food Movements: Food Sovereignty and Decolonization in Canada”, in Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures 7.2, December 22, 2016.
- Baxter, “Living Naturally”, 6.
- Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, “To Choose Life”, in Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1998), 6.
Abby Maxwell is a Canadian writer, permaculturalist, and artist living in Montreal, Canada. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Gender Studies and Environmental Studies from McGill University in 2019. In her studies, writing, and general life she seeks to unlearn the dominant logic through reconnecting to ecology, both within communities and the more-than-human realm, guided by a critical feminist, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive framework.