Review by David Holmgren.
Permaculture is variously understood as a set of gardening techniques, a radical form of ecological agriculture, a design philosophy for a sustainable society and an international social movement to achieve all of the above and more. The multifaceted nature of permaculture since its origins in the first wave of modern environmentalism in the 1970s, the informal, anarchic, even underground nature of its networks, and the turnover of participants, groups, projects and organisations all make it difficult to understand, let alone evaluate. Its expression in Australia, its country of origin, are in some ways unique, and in some ways similar to other long-affluent nations where it took root early. In many of the poorest nations, permaculture has had a profound, if patchy, adoption as a source of sustenance and empowerment, reinforcing and applying indigenous and traditional sources of wisdom in new ways.
Despite being the co-originator of the concept with Bill Mollison, and being one of many well-connected and influential participants in this global movement, I feel my own understandings of the permaculture movement have always been fragmentary at best. Our publication of Permaculture Pioneers in 2011 was a contribution to documenting the movement through the stories of some of the Australian pioneer teachers, designers and activists.
Newly released as part of the Fireworks Series from Pluto Press, The Politics of Permaculture has helped deepen my understanding of the movement that has defined my life and shaped that of countless others. Sociologist Terry Leahy draws on his own long engagement with permaculture practise, theory and community both in Australia and overseas to craft a great starting point for interested outsiders and participants of the movement. His own in-depth study and communication about inspiring and influential permaculture projects in some of the most underprivileged countries provides an essential balance to the common misunderstanding that permaculture is simply one more lifestyle choice of white middleclass people of the Global North affluent countries.
Until I read the preface, I was curious, and dare I admit, slightly miffed, that as the surviving co-originator of the permaculture concept, I hadn’t been interviewed for a book based on interviews. But this book uses the words of a range of participants, rather than leading permaculture writers, teachers and activists, to show how permaculture is understood and applied in their lives and livelihoods. With that focus, Leahy uses the qualitative methods of his discipline to show the patterns of experience that mark permaculture as a social movement, rather than simply a set of techniques or alternatively, a theory of the world confined to a few academics and their students. His clear non-academic writing respects both his interviewees and his readers, all the while demonstrating the contribution of sociology to understanding the world around us and our place in it.
Leahy tackles the issue of the “cult” in permaculture and some of the contentious issues confronting the movement. He shows how permaculture is a work in progress rather than a finished product, and adds his own modest suggestions for further progress in alliance with other kindred social movements. This outward looking encouragement to those within the movement is a theme I have long championed.
Along the same lines, Leahy suggests the expansion of permaculture to a theory of everything – exemplified by the abstraction of permaculture principles and domains of action of the permaculture flower – by the movement may be diluting its core contribution in the fields of agriculture and appropriate technology. I interpret this as a gentle criticism of my contribution to the shared understanding of permaculture (the concept) both within and outside the movement, but agree with the idea that getting our own house in order rather than proselytising is important to the credibility of the concept and the movement. For example can permies, collectively if not individually, show that growing food in ways that nurture ourselves and nature is achievable and pleasurable?
Leahy’s encouragement for greater collaboration and cross-fertilisation with progressive environmental and social movements is one that I support and, like him, I bring values from a radical left heritage to that process. I also believe the potential commonalities with people generally associated with the libertarian right is equally important. In the same way that I think it is wrong to see environmentalism in general as a project of the political left, I see many people involved in permaculture, especially at the practitioner level, who tend to avoid collective processes and groups, instead valuing self-reliance and resilience.
In Australia and similar long-affluent countries there is a significant minority, often from rural working-class backgrounds, who feel a deep sense of alienation from the current versions of industrial modernity and seek a more deeply grounded relationship with nature and land. Kindling an interest in permaculture amongst these folk could draw them into productive expressions of their undervalued skills and dispositions, and away from darker and potentially destructive paths. This would broaden the base of the permaculture movement at least as much as appealing to highly educated, mostly urbanised, left leaning, environmental and social activists.
However to mention such a strategy in the current highly polarised culture wars may exacerbate the challenges from other social movements of the left. These include an unease that permaculture was created by two “old white males”, and the view that permaculture is in need of a root and branch reform to be fit for purpose in the current progressive left view of the shiny new future we are busily building. I believe the current rush of evangelical fervour that characterises the progressive left is not useful; people with different values are not going away. Valuing diversity is not the easy principle people often assume it to be. Tolerance is perhaps the first essential step but when we celebrate diversity we encourage others to reciprocate. Seeing the good in people from different subcultures should reflect the same principles the left celebrates in relation to ethnic and gender diversity. As I said in RetroSuburbia, you don’t need to believe in climate change to understand the sense in retrosuburbia or other permaculture strategies.
Terry Leahy’s introductory book is certainly not the last word on understanding and participating in the politics of permaculture, but it is an excellent start in showing how permaculture thinking and action can contribute to a better society in times of challenge and change. In introducing permaculture to the general public, his portrayal is sensitive and sympathetic but without the slightest hint of evangelistic fervour. He points to both strengths and weaknesses, in language that is clear and direct with the very minimum of academic jargon. His methods of enquiry are transparent and rigorous, deserving respect from his academic peers and the wider progressive intelligentsia, many of whom are unaware or even dismissive of permaculture as a social movement. It is hard to imagine a better portrait of the movement to inform both its participants and those curious about it.
The Politics of Permaculture by Terry Leahy is available here.