What Is 'Liberation Permaculture'
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'.
What Is 'Liberation Permaculture'
By Graham Burnet and Nicole Vosper / permaculture.co.uk
Aug 27, 2015

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 (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/.

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What Is 'Liberation Permaculture'