[Please keep in mind that this page is very much under ongoing revision, which explains why some of the following may be a bit disjointed.]
I’m not sure that I want to be described as a “permaculturist” in the way that most people with a Permaculture Design Certificate understand the term. In fact, I’d rather be known as a permaculture sceptic.
Note that this does not mean “permaculture denier”. Since the advent of the climate change “debate” there has been too much confusion between the terms “sceptic” and “denier”. I am a permaculture sceptic in the sense of “a person who questions or doubts something (such as a claim or statement)” or “a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions”. There is nothing wrong with being a sceptic. I
I support the basic permaculture ethics and believe that the permaculture design principles are a very useful way of looking not just at food production but at the whole of life. You can see an example of my enthusiasm for these things in this post that I wrote just after completing my Permaculture Design Certificate Course with Tom Kendall. The feelings and attitudes that I describe there have not changed.
One way of looking at my permaculture scepticism is to say that I have my permaculture BS filter set fairly high. I won’t go deeply into the reasons for this here, but some time I’ll get around to writing a post on the topic.
Permaculture as it is taught/discussed vs permaculture as it is done
I guess I could divide my issues with permaculture into “permaculture as it is taught/discussed” and “permaculture as it is done”. There’s far more of the former than the latter, despite Geoff Lawton’s comment (which I can’t find the source for right now – probably because like most of his wisdom it is buried in a video, rather than being written down where it can be easily pointed to) that far more people in the world are being fed by permaculture than from all the aid projects.
Permaculture as it is taught/discussed
Permaculture as it is taught (or discussed in writing/videos) is seriously lacking in citation of sources for the knowledge being imparted or the claims made. It’s largely about anecdote. There are those who see this as a strong point because it results in rapid dissemination of information and is more like the traditional way food growers shared new approaches, but a little reflection shows up the fallacy in this. Traditional food growers depended for their livelihoods and often for the lives of themselves and their families because their daily meals depended on successful agriculture. That is the reason farmers are generally conservative in their attitudes to farming practices, whether in the developing world or in the developed world. Farmers will not take up some new method/technology unless they can be convinced that it will be at least as productive as their current methods and will involve no more risk. Subsistence farmers who don’t have this attitude frequently end up as landless, deceased or both. Those who are sources of bad advice to farmers who depend on their production for their lives or livelihoods quickly get excluded from the conversation.
With permaculture it is different. Very very few of those who practise permaculture depend on their production for either their daily food or their livelihoods, so they are much more open to trying new ideas, and because, with very few exceptions they have no background of experience in farming, they are not well equipped to make judgements as to the worth of these new ideas. It doesn’t particularly matter them if the new ideas turn out to be crap and their crops fail or have much lower yield; they can fall back on other means of support. And, in general, they are not going to know whether was the new approach or their application of it that caused the failure.
What this means is that there is no way for the field of permaculture as a whole to separate the good from the bad, so that there is little real progress through a chain of improvements in new approaches – in general the conditions are just not there for that to happen.
The Permaculture Design Course Syndrome
Chris Smaje writes one of the most thoughtful blogs on permaculture that I know of, while still (generally) managing to be readable and interesting. He has identified the symptoms of what he classes as Permaculture Design Course Syndrome
Chris lists the symptoms of PDC Syndrome as:
- a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
- a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism
- likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
- a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
- a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
- a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
- a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
- a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
- a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
- most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations
Chris points out in that post that he is exaggerating somewhat, and that the condition generally wears off after a few years, especially with hands-on experience. His whole post on this is well worth reading, as is his blog.
Permaculture and Science
Chris Smaje has published a new article Of holism and reductionism: Permaculture & the Science of Hunches where he focusses on what he politely describes as “improving permaculture’s scientific grounding, without losing the movement’s wider insights”. I highly recommed reading it for one of the most measured approaches to this enduring area of weakness in permaculture. I’ll come back here and expand on my issues with most leading permaculturists’ attitudes to science and the scientific method.