3 Jul 2009
Responding to Sharon Astyk on Permaculture and Transition
Sharon Astyk is one of the bloggers I most admire, one of the most insightful and incredibly prolific writers out there. It was fascinating therefore to read the two articles she recently posted, Permaculture Future Part One and Part Two. Her basic argument is that permaculture and Transition are, as we head into the Long Emergency, the only two shows in town in terms of positive solutions-focused responses, but are they up to it? Fair question. I hope in this post to try and address some of Sharon’s points, which as usual, are very well argued, and deserve a lengthy muse…
Firstly, permaculture. I love permaculture dearly. I did my Design Course in 1992, and have been a teacher of it since 1997. I live, breathe and dream permaculture. It is family. It is in my DNA. What initially blew me away about permaculture, when my friend David gave me a copy of the Designers Manual in 1991, was the idea of it being a toolkit for Earth repair, a distillation of good practice, design insights and applied common sense that offered a way forward for a global ecology and human society in crisis. It put humanity, long at the centre of destroying the biota, firmly in the driving seat of sorting it out. It was about solutions. I loved it.
Becoming a permaculture teacher was a hugely informative process, I learnt so quickly. It is often said the best way to learn something is to tell yourself you will be teaching it in 3 weeks time, and thus it was for me. I have seen, as a teacher, how teaching people the principles of permaculture, giving them those design insights, are like giving them a pair of glasses through which they become able to see possibilities rather than what is currently there. It is a very powerful tool. However, as I wrote in the Transition Handbook, I have come to have my concerns about it too, and this takes us back to Sharon’s article.
Permaculture has, for a long time, been good at making big claims. I’m sure, at various times, I have been as guilty of this as anyone. “Permaculture can feed the world”, “permaculture is more productive than intensive farming”,”we definitely know that permaculture works”. I wrote a piece here a while ago called ‘In Search of the Fabled Chicken Greenhouse’. This was based on my having for years taught the chicken greenhouse as a classic of permaculture design principles in action, and having decided to actually make one, finding that even my fellow teachers had actually never seen one (I have yet to finish mine, although I did find out that one chicken puts out around 15w of heat, so 4 chickens equate to a 60w light bulb). Yet there it is as a design classic that we tell people definitely works. There are others; is mulching the best technique in temperate zones, is forest gardening really as low maintenance as it is often presented, are permaculture gardens based on a preponderance of perennial plants anywhere near as productive as traditional market gardening?
What has long concerned me is that there are lots of people out there in permaculture, all with great motivation and intention, diseminating things which may or may not work, and not enough people actually rigorously testing it, revisiting projects, documenting successes and failures, and being honest about them. Misperceptions and half-truths become enshrined as fact. There is very little first hand, testable research taking place, although Permaculture Activist magazine has historically done a great job of drawing together what research there is. This is, I think, at least partly because permaculture tends not to attract people who do active, detailed, scientific research. My reading of Bill Mollison’s message when I first came into permaculture was that he was saying that academia was largely unneccessary and irrelevant, we just needed to DO stuff.
He famously said “if lose the universities we lose nothing, if we lose the forests, we lose everything”. Yes, fair point, but to me it implied a rejection of the idea of research and measurement, and as a result, we have a movement of doers, and very little measurement, and not enough self criticism and self reflection. For a while, the term a ‘Mollisonianism’ was coined, to describe a statistic, a quoted fact, seemingly plucked from the air with little tangible relation to reality. It made for very powerful and life-changing talks and trainings, but left a lot of academics and those in search of evidence scratching their heads. There is an old joke that runs thus; how many permaculturists does it take to change a light bulb? 14. One to change the bulb and 13 to run lightbulb changing workshops. Although a joke, there is an element of truth to it.
For me, the second in-built flaw in permaculture is, as Sharon observes, its inability to present itself acceptably to the mainstream (again, I speak solely from my experience in the UK and Ireland). There are some wonderful and notable exceptions, but in the main, permaculture seems to be quite happy to accept a place apart from the mainstream, rooted in alternative culture, waiting for the world to ‘wake up’ and to realise that permaculture holds the answers it is looking for. I think it is extraordinary that, to the best of my knowledge, there is still no landscape design consultancy out there (in the UK at least) tendering for public parks, new developments and other spaces, producing really high quality permaculture designs for edible landscapes, agroforestry plantings and skilful and productive water management in those places. Where are the trainers taking permaculture principles into organisations? By now there ought to be loads.
There are many fantastic designers, growers and activists out there doing great work, but it rarely touches the mainstream, perhaps due, in part, to its being perceived as something so determinedly alternative. I have taught hundreds of people all I know about permaculture, especially through the course in Kinsale. How many of them now work as permaculture design professionals? How many of them then augmented what I had taught them with written presentation skills, graphic design skills, the skills required to run their own business? To the best of my knowledge, none, although many of them integrated various aspects of permaculture into their lives.
This is why, for me, David Holmgren’s book ‘Permaculture: principles and pathways’ was so key. What he says in there is that actually what permaculture is, more than a movement, is a set of principles, and those principles are the principles for a post-oil society. Whether you call it permaculture or not matters little. What is key is that these principles, a deeply insightful reworking of previous definitions, are embedded wherever possible. To me, Transition is an approach which tries to draw from what I have perceived as both the strengths and the weaknesses of permaculture, and the inbuilt flaws that make it highly unlikely that it could ever become a mainstream phenomenon, but designed so as to accelerate the wider takeup of those principles.
Permaculture is notoriously difficult to explain in 2 minutes in the pub. Transition is much easier, yet it is designed, if you like, like a Trojan horse. It can be taken up by all kinds of people, who can ‘get it’ quickly, yet those permaculture principles are implicit, not explicit. One of Sharon’s concerns about Transition is that, like permaculture, it is designing itself into a ghetto of its own making, through its approach, its presentation and so on. While that is always a concern, and I will come on to that in a moment, I think that in its 3 years of life thus far, it is my sense that Transition has already embedded itself into mainstream culture far deeper than permaculture managed in 30, at least so far as my experience in the UK can tell. Let me give you some examples just from the last couple of weeks;
- Transition Town Tooting have become one of 4 out of 178 projects to be funded to do a big project about Transition, the Arts and climate change, presented by Ed Milliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who now seems to be waxing lyrical about Transition wherever he goes, having been invited to our conference as a ‘keynote listener’
- Yesterday I was in North Devon giving a presentation to trustees of the National Trust, the UK’s largest landowner, who are very seriously looking at engaging Transition into their work. ”Resilience’ and ‘local’ are becoming their buzz words, and after my presentation, on a bus with them going to a site visit, all the conversations between the trustees were about resilience, transition and energy descent. If anyone is interested, you can download the presentation I gave them here.
- I met with the CEO of a large estate on the edge of Totnes, very keen to embed Transition ideas into their work, they are looking seriously at creating an off grid combined heat and power system, new buildings using local materials, and a potential complete rethink of how their 1000 acres of land, on the edge of Totnes, is to be used, inspired, in part, by the buzz of Transition locally and nationally
- The big article in the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, the bastion of Conservative England, putting Transition forward as one of the potential responses to the recession, a great one in the Guardian suggesting that Transition might hold the seeds for the future of politics in the UK, not places, this kind of thing usually appears, but both seeing Transition not as something ‘alternative’ or ‘hippy’, but as deeply relevant for wider society and debates
I believe that at this moment, permaculture groups and the Transition movement represent quite honestly the only game in town for an ‘organized’ set of strategies for dealing with our present crisis – that is, ultimately, Transition and permaculture are the public face of our adaptive strategies…
Her point that at this stage, permaculture and Transition are the only shows in town (no pressure then!), although perhaps a slight exaggeration (organics? agroforestry? biointensive?) is a fascinating one. Transition never set out to be that. We are as flummoxed as anyone by the rate of growth in interest and the rate of the deepening of that engagement. Is Transition ready for scaling up big time? Is permaculture? How might it function in a ‘shit-hitting-the-fan’ context? Hard to say at this stage. My sense is that what Transition is doing is patiently but skillfully building a lot of the networks that will be needed, drawing together the organisations on whom responses will depend, and offering and revaluing skills, as well as getting Councils and other organisations to think about these issues. It is reducing the fear around inevitable change, and getting more organisations and individuals seeing it as an opportunity. The debate about Transition and emergency preparedness is one that has begun here, and will no doubt continue, but I want to move on to other issues raised by Sharon’s post.
One of her points is her aversion to sitting in circles of people, and anything that has a ‘touchy-feely’ element to it. Fair enough. I did my permaculture design course with a teacher who was an avowed circle dancer. Every morning at 9 we were all to circle dance for 10 minutes. I arrived at 10 past 9 every morning. There is a balance here though which we need to explore.
If we think that we are going to weather the Long Emergency without any form of supporting each other emotionally, without any kind of ability to share the distress it is causing, if we think that the work of the next 10-20 years will be purely external, we are deluding ourselves. The work of Joanna Macy and others offers a great deal in terms of equipping us for the profund transitions, inner and outer, that are, after all, inevitable. I have seen many people come here to Totnes to do Transition Training, nervous about the possibility of there being some kind of inner work, blown away by it. It has a powerful place, an essential place. Yet I didn’t discuss it with Ed Milliband, nor did I ask the Trustees of the National Trust to sit in a circle and vision the future. When I give public talks, I might ask the audience to talk to the person next to them, but not to hug them or share their innermost grief with them. It is a matter of what is appropriate where and when.
If people want to go deeper into Transition, having some of those reflective skills is going to be vital. Being out there advocating Transition in your community is work which is exhilating and life affirming, but it can also be lonely, frightening, stressful and can leave one feeling as though they are shouldering the hope of an entire community. That requires inner skills, as much as outer ones, much as in the same way that in permaculture, the Earth Care is the easy part, the People Care far trickier. It is intense work, and people need to be properly equipped for it. Sometimes this leads to the accusation that Transition is a ‘cult’, a patently absurd suggestion, and one that is really a very lazy label to put onto anything that contains any element of inner work. Yet there are hundreds of ways into Transition. Here in Totnes, for example, there are 11 working groups. They focus on different aspects of this. The Heart and Soul group might meditate together and explore tools for strengthening the inner aspects of Transition. The Building group discuss U-values and planning codes and the Energy group discusses potential energy demand for the area. To the best of my knowledge, they do sit in a circle, but only out of it being the most practical way of all being able to see each other (what’s the alternative, sitting in rows?)
For me, the approach the Transition is sometimes criticised for, of not being more explicit about what it is against, is increasingly clearly one of its great strengths. To make an explicit connection would be to lose much of the respect it is generating in the wider world. Other people do that very well, and many people in Transition step between one and the other. There are, of course, issues of diversity, and the old accusation of Transition being largely white and middle class is still relevant, but then it is to the wider environmental movement as a whole, and to permaculture). Sharon seems to be concerned that it is mostly white, middle class hippies, but that seems to be less my experience here (whatever hippy means nowadays: as an Irish woman friend of mine once said “a hippy is the thing that your leggies are connected to”..). My experience is that many of the people engaging in Transition are not, mostly, the same people that engaged with permaculture, they tend to be a more mainstream crowd, many of whom do not have a background in environmentalism, although of course this differs from place to place.
However, moving forward, deepening that diversity is vital, and is a key aspect of the work of Transition, we are very aware of that. Also, drawing from the lessons learnt from permaculture, so is measurement and research. The work I am doing in Totnes, looking in depth at the extent to which Transition thinking has embedded itself in the area and how one might measure resilience, are one part of this. So is the series of books being produced, ‘The Transition Guides to…’, the first one on food being published in September. Rather than just being books of ideas, they are rooted in the experience, the successes and the failures, of Transition food projects around the world. The new website (coming soon) will enable a great exchange of successes and failures, ideas and tips, between Transition groups, and the exchange of data and outputs.
In terms of deepening engagement, we are already engaging with faith groups, and starting to do work around the language with which Transition is communicated. We are deepening the engagement of Transition with businesses and other organisations. But Transition Network itself is still just 4 people. There are many thousands of people all over the world doing Transition in their communities, the challenge, as I see it, is to enshrine through all our work, those principles, of;
- documenting what we do
- sharing the successes and failures
- measuring outputs where possible
- continually deepening diversity of engagement
- being mindful of presentation and language (since I started wearing a shirt and had my hair cut I am still amazed at how much more seriously people take me)
- adapting the message and how it is communicated depending on the audience.
As Ken Jones, quoted in the Transition Handbook, put it, this is about “changing the climate, rather than winning the argument”.
Whether we manage to sufficiently change the climate (in all meanings of the term) before it is too late, remains to be seen. I think our best hope lies in being able to argue our case in many ways; in the fact that people enjoy it and seem to be having a fun, in that it offers a coherent overview of the wider challenges affecting society, a practical model for catalysing responses, that we have an approach which is accessible and understandable, that it offers a route for organisations to positive, vital and engaged community groups, that it results in people modelling change not just calling for it.
Sometimes I am asked, and some of the comments on Sharon’s first piece also ask this, is permaculture part of Transition, or Transition part of permaculture? Many of things (but not all) I just mentioned could also be said about permaculture. However, for me, I see it that permaculture is a set of principles and insights which hold a vital role in the future of a post-peak society, and Transition is a vehicle designed for deepening their embedding and take up at the scale needed for their to influence the direction of humanity at this point. It is not a case, for me, of which is a part of which. Transition has grown out of permaculture as a way of enshrining those principles in a vehicle that can hopefully avoid some of the failings observed in permaculture over time, and thereby hopefully increasing our chances of success. Sharon concludes her second piece;
All that matters is that the work gets done, as well as possible, that the floods are as small as we can make them, and that the suffering is as little as possible. That’s honestly all I care about.
Indeed. That is the task to which we all dedicate ourselves, whatever we choose to call this work. Transition has not arrived as a fully formed, completely developed model that you just plug in and everything magically transforms. It is created by the many thousands of people doing it, wherever they are. We all try to do it as skilfully as possible, and discussions like these are a powerful part of refining these ideas. For me, all the signs are that that deepening and broadening of Transition is happening, whether it happens fast enough, only time will tell.
I do appear to have written rather a lot here, and congratulations if you have made it to the end. I hope it was worthwhile. Sharon’s piece was an invitation to write about my 2 favourite things, so inevitably I had a lot to say. Bit like being asked to write about the influence of the Velvet Underground and Can on modern music. Maybe another time….