What Is 'Liberation Permaculture'

Graham Burnett and Nicole Vosper
Tuesday, 25th August 2015

Is permaculture about re-creating Eden or about changing the world in every way, even politically? Graham Burnet and Nicole Vosper make the case for a politically engaged, 'liberation permaculture'.

Does permaculture design have a place within the current 'political' narrative? Do ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares inform our strategic thinking in effectively responding to what is happening in a political arena that is so clearly diametrically opposed to such values right now, or do we continue to doggedly insist that permaculture is 'neutral' and stick to designing our gardens and insist on being 'nice to each other' rather than speaking our truth to Power? Graham Burnett and Nicole Vosper discuss the idea of 'Liberation Permaculture' and some questions that arise...

There's a quote attributed to Buckminster Fuller that many permaculturists seem fond of using whenever 'political' issues arise;

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In many ways this is a nice little phrase that neatly encapsulates what Joanna Macy calls 'The Great Turning' – the need for a paradigm shift in the human mindset; fundamentally reassessing who we are, what we assume we need and how we are related to our living planet and to each other. But as with all sound-bites, there is also the danger of using these words as a substitute for critical thinking, without exploring what they truly mean or imply.

Copying and pasting Fuller's words of wisdom can become an almost default position whenever questions around 'permaculture and political engagement' are posed on social media, a 'trump card' homily whereby we can all nod wisely without any further comment or thought, because we all have loftier goals than concerning ourselves with the activities of a government that is openly declaring war on the poor and vulnerable, the environment, workers rights, basic health care provision, civil liberties and no end of other things we once took for granted. Indeed one person cheerfully admitted to using Fuller's quote as a way to “purposely end conversations” when they are “bored of talking about what's wrong with the old, established ways of doing things that give little consideration to the well being of the earth and future generations”.

In other words, is 'playing the Bucky Card' a convenient way of simply putting hard questions to one side while we permaculturists get on with 'building the new world in our hearts' by planting our apple trees, tending our gardens and all being nice to each other, or are we avoiding engagement with a 'realpolitick' that is certainly not ignoring us however much we might think we might be ignoring it? 

Indeed are we failing to address even deeper problems with power structures that define our social relations on a far more fundamental level than short term party politics? Not everybody feels so comfortable it would seem from this Facebook comment;

“At times permaculture doesn't feel like home because some folk espousing it just don't realise or acknowledge their privilege. I've felt very excluded at times amongst rich, ordinarily abled, white, largely cis and straight groups who assume that their experiences are universal. And I'm cis and white.” 

I'd argue that to embrace Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fairshares IS explicitly political, and while of course we are all about celebrating the positive and co-creating the alternatives, to my mind permaculture is also about openly and explicitly siding with the oppressed rather than keeping quiet about those doing the oppressing. 'Neutrality' is often tacit consent, and I'd counter the Bucky Fuller quote with another, this time from the punk band Crass on the 'hippy' idealists of the 1960s and 70s;

"They formed little groups, like rich man's ghettos
Tending their goats and organic tomatoes
While the world was being fucked by fascist regimes
They talked of windmills and psychedelic dreams"

Maybe there IS a tension between what Joanna Macy describes as the 'Holding Actions' around community organising and political engagement, as opposed to putting our focus into 'Building the New Paradigm', and maybe alot of us permaculturists fancy ourselves more as 'New Paradigm Builders'. But to me it's increasingly also about being clear which side exactly we are on in this brave new world of 'Austerity' and Neo-Liberalism...

Some thoughts on a possible solution – 'Liberation Permaculture'

Liberation Permaculture is permaculture that is being used for liberatory means, as a tool towards ecologically and socially just ways of living. It is a label coined from a permaculture design course that took place in North America in 2010 exploring how permaculture can be used in grassroots resistance & community organising work. Some potential principles of liberation permaculture might be;

  • Places permaculture in a wider context of social change 
  • Observes power relationships & structures within systems 
  • Recognises oppression as part of ‘people care’ & aims to consciously design oppressive practices and mindsets out of systems for the risk of otherwise perpetuating them 
  • Works in solidarity with multitudinous social struggles, indigenous peoples & ecological resistance movements 
  • Ensures yields are shared across genders, races, classes, ages and so forth & challenge privilege consciously reducing inequalities 
  • Supports the regeneration of our landbases without exploitative relationships and rejects speciesm and the domination of nonhumans 
  • Places re-skilling in a context of increasing autonomy and self-determination 
  • Takes a ‘beyond our backyards’ approach working for ecosystem & community restoration on broader scales than beyond home gardens 
  • Practitoners use observation and intelligent ecological design principles to inform decision making in all areas of life, not just farms but organisations and movements 
  • Places permaculture in the context of rebuilding land based cultures rather than ‘fitting in’ or mainstreaming into capitalist & oppressive societies 
  • Uses the practical applications of permaculture e.g. food growing, cleaning water, to genuinely improve people’s lives beyond that of a privileged few. 
  • Practitioners practice mutual aid for collective living and design systems that maximise power and relationship building within communities. 
  • Ultimately liberation permaculture is about ‘obtaining a yield’, by addressing root causes of systematic dysfunction – “You cannot control a system. You can only design & re-design” – Donella Meadows 

In summary, it is clear that permaculture, as a concept in itself, challenges the foundations of modern industrial civilised society, simply from its premises of recognising ecological limits and its promotion of core ethics, such as caring for people, the earth and redistributing surplus. However many criticise permaculture because it doesn’t fully challenge the roots of oppressive systems, the relationships or power at play. If we are truly to re-design our lives for freedom and autonomy and respect for the land then we need to break the denial and get to the roots of understanding our current state of affairs. If permaculture is all about relationships, then we need to consciously design for relationships without domination. This is the premise of liberation permaculture”.

- Nicole Vosper and Graham Burnett

Nicole Vosper (Empty Cages Design), Graham Burnett (The Vegan Book of Permaculture), Pandora Thomas (Black Permaculture Network) and Rafter Sass Ferguson (Liberation Ecology) will be facilitating an IPC 'Edge Event' workshop around Liberation Permaculture' at Dial House in Essex from 4 – 6 September that will explore if, how and why to place permaculture in a wider framework of radical social change, including the liberation of our non-human co-citizens. We will share ideas, design tools and practices to bring together people who share a political affinity within the permaculture movement. The session will be a participant-led open space for discussions and development of emergent themes, sharing best practice in linking permaculture, community organising and resistance. Participants will explore anti-oppression practice and share how we design and act for social and environmental justice. For more information see http://spiralseed.co.uk/liberation-permaculture-weekend-at-dial-house-4-6-september-2015/

D-Molotov-Cockt-GandhiSmallforWebArticleOut 1st September! Mark Boyle's Drinking Molotov Cocktails With Gandhi attacks the very roots of the world’s crises and reframes our understanding of how to solve them.

Russ Grayson |
August 28, 2015 - 7:15am
A timely, provocative and insightful article. I’ve made a few comments about it here: http://pacific-edge.info/2015/08/liberation-permaculture-a-response-to-nicole-vosper-and-graham-burnett/
Grahamburnett |
August 28, 2015 - 9:49am
Hi Russ - unfortunately the URL you posted above cuts off - could you re-post a shorter version? (eg using tiny.url or similar?) thanks, Graham
Nandor Tanczos |
August 29, 2015 - 1:52am
I think this question of applying a permaculture design approach to our own selves, our practise, our organisations and the political culture is an important one. To me many of the things you point out are intrinsic to permaculture, but clearly that view is not shared by all and needs to be made explicit, so thank you. Applying a permaculture design lens to politics is an interesting experiment. Our organisations and our political solutions both benefit from it IMO. We can also conceptualise formal politics as another (social) energy flow coming into our community, that needs to be managed and modified for beneficial purposes. Ignoring it is a bit like ignoring the prevailing winds. A last thought - it would be interesting to know how much your critique applies in an international context. My feeling is that it is less relevant (but certainly not irrelevant) here in NZ. I know there are some interesting developments in Africa, the Caribbean etc and I wonder what the social - political dynamics are there. I suspect very different.
JoshuaTrost |
August 29, 2015 - 11:28am
Here's a working shortened link to Russ Grayson's response article: http://bit.ly/1fMDS7T
Larry Saltzman |
August 29, 2015 - 4:30pm
I think this article is important. I understand the desire in Permaculture to keep things positive and work on the solutions. But we are not in an either or world. There are some really bad things going on that can obliterate the good work being done. I believe we work on the solutions but give some energy into stopping the bad stuff. There are places in this world were the best Permaculture practices and exemplary sites can and will be destroyed by political forces bent on doing harm. Occupied Palestine comes to mind as one example. Build a Permaculture site there and you may see the Israelis come through and destroy it. Without political action you might be wasting your time. There are other examples all over the world. There are scenarios where runaway global warming could make life on this planet difficult or impossible and destroy our best efforts to build a new paradigm. We can't ignore the forces that are still pushing the consumption of fossil fuels while living in a fantasy bubble of sustainability. In short I very much favor Joanne Macy's more nuanced and multi-faceted approach.
fbuser95 |
August 30, 2015 - 7:41am
The article is thought provoking. There are some comments that seem to propose some form of control or restriction of personal freedom in order to pursue the goals of those who embrace liberation permaculture. Please correct me where I misunderstand. The image is misleading. What countries actually practice true capitalism? Genuine capitalism is unfettered laissez faire economics. It's the freedom to trade our goods, services and currencies without control or coercion. To my knowledge, though there are aspects, markets and pockets that do, there's not a single country on the planet that provides for such a possibility across the board. Anything less than genuine capitalism is a form of coercion. So, to say it's not working is to claim that it's actually being practiced. And to say that we need anything else is to claim that we need to be coerced. Is this what the author intends? The third bullet point states that liberation permaculture, "Recognises oppression as part of ‘people care’ & aims to consciously design oppressive practices and mindsets out of systems for the risk of otherwise perpetuating them". Are we to be oppressed then? And who will the masters be? Will they be self-appointed "experts"? Does not this amount to yet another form of slavery? Maybe I misunderstand, but is this not antithetical to the sixth bullet point? "Places re-skilling in a context of increasing autonomy and self-determination." Can one be "oppressed", regardless of the purity of the ultimate motive, and still autonomous and self-determining? I look forward to understanding better. Thanks for provoking thought and discussion.
tiellis |
December 27, 2016 - 12:54am
Even though this article was written a while back, it has suddenly become deeply relevant to me, living in the (former) United States of America, where the latent fascism of global corporate oligarchy has suddenly become blatant--and deeply threatening--with the rise to power of a psychopathic megalomaniac and delusional buffoon like Trump, who has appointed a gang of climate-denying, anti-science, pro-corporate racist thugs to positions of power, and who regards all who oppose him as his mortal enemies, to be silenced or destroyed. Real tyranny lies just over the horizon, here in the US, and we are scared and demoralized. I have therefore been promoting, to my students and all others I can reach, a threefold antidote to the poison of Trumpism as it spreads throughout our land: Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture. (See my blog at http://dharmagaia.blogspot.com/ for further discussion of this). I entirely agree with the authors, and with Toby Hemenway and others, that Permaculture and Satyagraha (nonviolent direct action against any and all forces of oppression) are interwoven and interdependent in all sorts of ways, and incomplete without one another. After all, in addition to truthfulness (Satya) and nonviolent direct action (ahimsa) the third essential element in Gandhi's conception of Satyagraha was Swaraj, or self-reliance, embodied in the Spinning Wheel symbol--and Permaculture is the fruition of Swaraj.

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