The Permaculture Behind Inhabit

Leticia Trandafir from P3 Permaculture
Tuesday, 23rd June 2015

Leticia Trandafir from P3 Permaculture speaks with Emmett Brennan, one of the producers of the groundbreaking permaculture film, Inhabit: a Permaculture Perspective.

P3 Permaculture chat with Emmett Brennan, the producer and assistant director of Inhabit: a Permaculture Perspective, a content-rich film exploring the importance of mimicking nature, healthy food, and bio-diverse habitat. 

The conversation illuminates not only our shared excitement for permaculture, but also broader issues around how to foster social and environmental change, the role of film in this process, and the exciting, solution-oriented possibilities of permaculture as it is gaining momentum.

P3 Permaculture: Tell me the permaculture story behind the creation of Inhabit.

Emmett: Inhabit is a collaboration between Costa Boutsikaris and myself. Before we met, Costa and I were taking permaculture design courses and we were lit up by the material and by the perception shifts that were happening as a result. When looking online for related media to share, we noticed a dearth of film and video. There wasn’t much content that we were excited to share with friends and family. So in 2011, Costa began working on a feature length project about permaculture in the Northeastern United States, and about a year later I began working on a series of short films covering a range of permaculture projects and people. Costa raised money via Kickstarter to convert his van into a diesel, veggie-oil mobile editing lab, and he hit the road to shoot a few preliminary sites. For one reason or another he put the project on hold, and not long after this we met for the first time, per the recommendation of a mutual friend. Something about our meeting kicked off a fast rewiring of our projects. They merged and became something unique but with the same spirit.

Our goal was to present the breadth of permaculture in a way that felt current, and in a way that could be accessed by a large and diverse group of people. A month later we hit the road and we were on it for five months.

The film has a geographical focus, which I thought was important because there seems to be much more media focused on permaculture in tropical areas, where it is quite obvious that stuff can grow. Meanwhile, there’s this image that in northern parts of North America, stuff doesn't grow all year round. How important was it to the film, and how deliberate was the decision to show northeastern US permaculture examples?

We definitely wanted to show people how you can stretch the boundaries of what’s possible in certain landscapes, and to anchor those possibilities in real life examples, which you don’t see a whole lot of in the media right now.

We also wanted to connect the details – the specifics of geography and location - to the umbrella of permaculture as a worldview, as a way of approaching any set of challenges in any landscape (social or geographical). So we were always trying to balance the systems-thinking and pattern languaging, with the details of site specific tools and techniques. This way anyone watching the film could apply permaculture to their own life.

Though the details often look different - this species, that climate, this circumstance, that person - the pattern is the same: we are part of a complex web of inter-connectivity, where the actions of any being (animate or inanimate) impact the whole. This creates a dynamic relationship between the sum and the parts. With keen observation of these relationships, we’re capable of designing life-affirming, synergistic, and harmonic systems.

How did you choose and approach the people featured in Inhabit?

The northeastern US has a thriving permaculture community and we were already connected to a handful of pivot people, whom we had worked with or taken courses from. There has been a lot of support from the start, so making connections was pretty easy. We did put a lot of intention into representing people of color, people of different economic backgrounds and people of different genders, though.

Permaculture has often been criticized for being normative, patriarchal and white-dominated. Stripped bear though, diversity is at the core of it - it’s inherently human. So we felt it very important to represent, as best we could, a range of context and application. The range is much greater than what the film represents, and more credit must be made to our indigenous ancestors.

This is interesting, and the film really shows how we can put the human back into the loop of our social and ecological systems. My favourite example was Pandora, the woman doing work with the people that just came out of the incarceration system.

Yes, and Pandora points to something important: that permaculture starts with the individual. It starts with how we create our life from the perspective of: ‘what are my needs, and how do I meet those needs in a way that encourages life, joy and excitement? And how do I do this while also honoring my life as a part of the systems around me, especially the ecological ones?’ 

Inhabit also sheds a different light on what suburbs can represent for North American culture. We have come to view them as a terrible thing ecologically speaking, as an urban planning flaw because of the necessity of cars, etc. In the film we see different kinds of possibilities for what suburbs can be. Can you talk a bit about this aspect?

I’m excited about the suburbs. They’re a blending of cities and farms. In them you have both the concentration of people and the abundance of land. So they have big opportunity. We can be growing a huge amount of food on varying land scales (from a ⅓ acre, to a string of shared lawns, to 5, 6, 7 acres, etc), with a huge amount of people. You can pool human capacity in a powerful way in the suburbs. 

That’s very interesting, it makes me think of my own parents’ house in the suburbs: it has a huge backyard, and most of it is just nice lawn. After seeing Inhabit, they really wished they had done something more along the lines of permaculture with that space; now unfortunately they’re moving. I think it speaks to the illustrative power of film to shift people’s ideas about what the possibilities can be in suburbs, because at this point we can’t get rid of suburbs, but we can make them a solution instead of a problem.

Absolutely! Yeah, there’s this static, hardened cultural image of what our suburbs should look like and how we should be existing in them (which of course differs depending on the context). In many instances though, it includes a lawn and a certain way of caring for that lawn. Certain expectations. It’s a challenging image to break for many reasons, but what if it was normal and encouraged to just have tons of food in your front yard? That would be a very different experience.

Yes! Since learning about permaculture, I can’t find a lawn beautiful anymore!

This is another interesting thing that you’re making me think of, which is that there is such a strong social conception that food is only grown on farms. We see it shifting in urban areas with urban agriculture becoming more popular, but it seems like there is a pushing away of food production - this idea that food can only be grown by a certain type of person in a certain area. Not true. Plus, there are so many cascading benefits from growing food in suburban and urban contexts: for one, it gives children a way to connect and to tap into the life cycle more deeply - which has been pretty systematically cut out of the sub/urban model. To see things grow, die, decay, and then to come alive again, touches the heart and spirit in a way that TV can’t. It speaks to our DNA and allows inherent knowledge and creativity to move through us.

There was a part that wasn’t included in the film that I was curious about: What happens with the produce of the farms and gardens shown in the film? Do they get sold on the market, or supplied to restaurants?

That’s a great question and we didn’t show that too much. There could be a whole film on that!

One thing that’s clear is that just as there needs to be a shift towards growing new kinds of food - perennial crops, nuts, different sorts of grains and vegetables - there also needs to be a shift in the market. People need to be made aware of different foods and feel comfortable buying them. This process is starting to happen, but needs to happen more, and of course will happen in tandem with the increase of permaculture and perennial food systems.

There also needs to be some energy and creative thought put into how we’re designing distribution systems and how we’re supporting local farmers. Mark Shepard, shown in the film, is a really good example. He was one of the original farmers at Organic Valley - a farmer-owned cooperative founded in 1988. What’s unique about it is that it’s a national co-operative that distributes food locally. The structure of the business is governed by farmers who exist all over the country. There are hundreds (I think) of regional hubs which connect with organic farmers and distribute their products locally. Resources are pooled and redistributed.

Another aspect of the film that was I was wondering about is the link between permaculture and universities: It seems like in the States there is a bit more of that than in Canada. Can you tell me what you know about that link?

I’m most familiar with the northeast, where there’s a nice overlap - especially in Massachusetts - between schooling institutions and permaculture. A big one is The University of Massachusetts in Amherst (UMass Amherst). They now have several different courses offered focused on permaculture, and they offer permaculture design certificates, as well. It started a few years ago when a handful of students who were studying permaculture outside of school got together to write a proposal. They wanted to turn a bunch of lawn space outside of their dining commons into a permaculture demonstrations site - providing food for the cafeteria while educating students and generating attention. The project subsequently won many awards and eventually made it all the way to the White House. Pretty remarkable. It’s great because universities represent a bridge to the mainstream, and to the future system-holders/makers. People who are coming into adulthood and moving into leadership positions. It’s such a good time to catch people and say, “Hold on! before you go, make sure that you’re plugging yourself into the systems around you and that you understand your relationship to the whole.”

It seems like on the other hand, I hear from people who have an environmental focus in university coming out of those programs saying, “I only know what’s wrong with our planet!” There seems to be a lack of solutions brought into university level education. Integrating permaculture seems to bring that much-needed solution-based orientation. 

That’s a huge part of permaculture: This orientation towards solutions. A lot of people who are turning to permaculture are doing so because it helps to channel the frustration, sadness, despair, etc. that arises in response to our pretty sad state of affairs. There is so much latent rage that’s brought up when we tune into the devastation that is happening to species around the planet, to our waters, to our land, and to the human psyche and spirit. I think a lot of that rage comes primarily from the feeling of disconnection - from the Earth, from each other, and from something deeper and more mysterious. Permaculture, in many ways, is a tool for reconnecting and understanding ourselves as part of this great mystery. It also provides the practical framework that is required for building healthy and long-lasting (permanent) systems. Certainly, this should be a key component of education. It’s certainly more empowering. And educating people on the solutions would surely go a long way towards enacting those solutions!

Framing permaculturists as designers can also shine a different light on who and what permaculture is: Designers structure our experience of the everyday and the implications of design are so wide. It also speaks to the applicability and adaptability of permaculture on different scales, from a balcony to a huge farm land. 

For sure. I think that the film and permaculture itself points to the fact that just being human on this planet endows us with the ability to design, if only we slow down, listen and observe the natural systems around us - if we tune into the way that things grow and interact with each other, the way that the elements move through the landscape. Permaculture provides a context for realizing our inner designer, so to speak. Also, some people like to label permaculture as some hippy movement, or as a grungy, fringe movement. The reality, and what needs to be shown and inserted into the understanding of the mainstream, is that permaculture offers us all the comforts that we’re currently experiencing and that its application has relevance in more than just farming.

Your film won the Audience Choice Award at both the Environmental Film Festival of Yale and of Princeton, congratulations! Can you can talk about the choice of making a feature film, and the role of film in permaculture and social change as you see it?

Thank you! I think that nothing accelerates or creates change more effectively than seeing something (like a film) which embodies that change already in action. All of a sudden, a collective shift is realistic. People feel that change is possible because they can see that it’s already happening/happened. This is the idea behind Inhabit: To show the kind of culture that we’re capable of creating by showing examples of such a culture. Hopefully that allows people to open and shift their perceptions to become aware of the gifts that are here now. And then, as you mentioned earlier, the media likes to play the tune of doom and gloom. People are weary of this. We’re trying to provide the alternative. The solutions.

Can you tell me about the sharing distribution system your film is part of?

We are helping to pioneer and move forward a new method of film distribution which is more horizontal and which we feel embodies some of the permaculture principles of fair share and redistribution of surplus. The whole idea behind our distribution method is that we are tapping into the momentum of our audience and support system - the fanbase - to get the word out. We’re using a revenue sharing platform called Yekra, which allows anyone to become an affiliate and to sell the film on their website or Facebook for 20% of profit on their sales. This allows folks who are excited about the film to share it - as they might do anyway - and then to profit from the promotion. This is especially exciting because it means that a third party distribution company isn’t coming in, buying the rights to the film and then taking a huge chunk of the profits and leaving the filmmakers and audience with very little, perhaps nothing if they just shelf the film. We’re putting the power of distribution in the hands of the audience and filmmakers. So it’s a big shift. 

And about the crowdfunding aspect?

The film was funded through it! Moving into editing, we launched another Kickstarter campaign – a crowdfunding tool where you ask for a little bit of money from a lot of people. We had a goal of $18,000 and surpassed that goal after something like 42 hours. We ended up doubling the goal at around $36,000! It was the first time Costa and I really understood the impact that this film might have. There are so many people out there who are looking for something like this to share with their friends and family and be like, “Hey look, this is that thing that I’m interested in and that I always talk about! That permaculture thing!” [laughs]

What did you take away from the making of this film?

One of the things that made the people we were visiting so remarkable was the way that they had honored and followed their excitements. They were doing work that brought them joy, first and foremost. If we align ourselves with excitement, then we’re aligning ourselves with what is true for us. This allows our gifts to come through, and this is essential if we’re going to create the sort of regenerative systems that are needed to sustain our species. 

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P3 Permaculture is a social enterprise based in Canada, with a mission to design, share and grow, appropriate and accessible ecological solutions that profit the planet and its inhabitants. P3 offers PDC courses, workshops as well as permaculture design consultation and implementation. Visit www.p3permaculture.ca to discover more.

To watch/buy Inhabit visit YEKRA HERE

Further resources

Permaculture magazine review Inhabit in PM84

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