Growth of permaculture

Fiona Campbell + Russ Grayson pacedge at
Fri Jan 16 04:59:59 EST 1998

It was interesting to return to Australia to find this discussion on the
growth and furture of permaculture going on. The subject is one I have
discussed with a number of people over the years and I believe that it's
quite pertinent to permaculture.

First, may I address some comments made by David de Vries
(warning at on January 10.

Like David, I have wondered why, after years of permaculture teaching in
Australia and overseas, permaculture practitioner numbers in this
country can still only be counted in the low thousands. Permaculture
activists - those who move beyond the home garden into the social sphere
- number far less than this, perhaps in the very low hundreds, to make
an optimistic estimate.

I suggest the reasons for non-participation in permaculture are many and
include those I address below - permaculture livelihoods, permaculture
education, public perceptions of permaculture and the variable quality
od permaculture projects.

Trainees and Livelihoods...

Perhaps David's idea that new trainees cannot find a niche in teaching
permaculture is not far off the mark. One reason for this, I would
suggest, has a great deal to do with the low level of demand for
permaculture design courses. 

Why is there low demand?  

First, despite years of teaching, permaculture remains a relatively
unknown technology. 

I am aware that permaculture activists, those of us embedded in
permaculture practice, sometimes find this hard to believe. But that's
what happens when you are enmeshed inside something - it seems that it
must be common knowledge, that it must be widely known. Frequently it is
not, it's just that our perspective is subsumed by our immersion in the
subject - we can't see beyond our self-imposed horizon.

Perceptions of Permaculture...

The image people hold of permaculture, where they hold one at all,
influences whether they perceive it as worthy of participation in and,
in the case of social activists, whether they see permaculture as having
any real utilitarian value in creating a better world.

Many people who are aware of permaculture regard it as little more than
some form of backyard organic gardening. This has a lot to do with
television coverage of permaculture, where - in Australia at least - the
image portrayed is decidedly urban or rural agrarian. Permaculture's
role as a technology for community-based development rarely receives a

People fail to see the forest - permaculture as a means to community
development - from the trees - permculture practices of organic
gardening and intensive farming as a means to food security, itself only
a component of ecologically sustainable community development.

It's my attitude, 16 years after doing my permaculture design course,
that permaculture activists need to reconsider the image they project of
permaculture. Image, of course, must be based on content otherwise it
becomes shallow public relations. Unfortunately, it's frequently image
which allows a person to position a technology like permaculture on the
continuum of human activity and to make a decision about its pertinence
to their life.

Course Costs and Market Saturation...

David brings up the cost of permaculture design courses.

In Australian dollars, live-in, two week intensives cost something
around $650 - $800, including keep. 

As for our own 18 day course, run in Sydney mainly on Sundays and
including a number of Saturdays, that is costed at AUD$500. That's the
minimum we have to charge to pay the teaching team, hire venue and so
on. And that leaves precious little over - certainly too little for
anyone to seriously consider teaching as a major income supplement.

There's also a substantial effort to organise courses and for lesson
preparation and this, as many teachers know, goes largely unrewarded in
financial terms. In Sydney, our motivation in running courses is to get
more community activists out there working in ecologically sustainable
community development.

Whatsmore, I believe the market for permaculture design courses has,
overall, hit the ceiling of what students are willing to pay. This is
ironic when, in Sydney, people pay AUD$2000 for a course in Feng Shui!
Such a choice has to do with whether something has caught the public
imagination, such as Feng Shui has over recent years.  

Maybe there's something that needs doing about public images and
perceptions of permaculture.

Social blocks to training and participation...

People in full time work can generally afford a permaculture design
course, however Australian society, like others in the Western world, is
undergoing a process of wealth polarisation with substantial growth of
unemployment, part time work and fast-increasing poverty. With less
money to go around, people understandably forego things they would like
to do but cannot economically justify - like permaculture courses. This
much has been explained to me by people who would like to do a course
but can't justify the expenditure. In some cases, we give people a
cheaper course on the basis that they pass on what they learn to their
community organisation.

On a broader scale, associated with this is the increasing sense of
insecurity, uncertainty
and even fear now afflicting previously affluent sections of middle
class Australia. The climate, bound up with sustained economic, social,
technological and ecological change, encourages withdrawl into the
personal domain and holding on to what money you have to cope with an
uncertain furture. In such a restrained social environment, there is
less participation in social issues, less voluntarism and reduced
expenditure on nonessentials such as permaculture courses.

Too Mant Teachers, Too Few Students...

As for David's question about the viability of teachers working in close
proximity, that viability depends upon demand for permaculture training. 

The situation in northern NSW could serve as an indicator of what
happens when too many teachers offer similar courses in a region. 

There, with at times up to four permaculture design course providers
operating within a couple hours drive of each other, (and another two
providers at Crystal Waters village within four hours drive),
competition has increased over recent years to such an extent that at
least one competent provider no longer offers design courses on grounds
of their unviability. 

In situations of such competition in a limited area, where courses are
of similar quality and, I would suggest, the market is limited even when
it draws most of its clientelle from the eastern seaboard capital cities
and large towns, prices are forced down. Courses attract too few
participants and only break even, if that. For providers, scheduling
courses becomes a financially questionable action. 

It's called market saturation and it leads to a shakeout among
providers.Big names, such as Bill Mollison and Max Lindegger, have the
greatest pulling power and the best chance of running financially viable
courses. The range of their courses extends over thousands of

What happens is that, as providers withdraw from the training market,
those remaining find their courses once again viable. Encouraged by the
reopening of the market due to the withdrawl of providers, others start
to again promote their courses and so the process repeats itself. What
this makes clear is that the provision of permaculture courses takes
place within a market economy and is subject to laws of supply and
demand, irrespective of the quality and importance of the content of the

I've become aware of these trends over the years by speaking with
training providers. At Pacific Edge Permaculture, we also receive
numerous phone
calls from members of the public who want to do a course. Usually, these
people have bought a copy of the Permaculture International Journal,
turned to the courses pages, found a number of similar-looking courses
and become thoroughly confused. Rightly, they seek advice. 

This greates a difficult situation. Just who do you recommend? What we
do is ask people about their needs, suggest a number of appropriate
providers, suggest that they contact course providers with a
thought-out set of questions, then sit down an analyse the information
and make a selection.

Interestingly, we also receive the occasional complaint about courses,
even about permaculture designers who have annoyed people by doing a
poor job or by having poor communication and participation skills. I
have no idea why it's us who receives these calls in Sydney. We suggest
contact the Permaculture Institute.

Encouraging Participation by Imporving Ourselves...

The quality of our work in public places influences public perceptions
of permaculture.We need to lift our game. 

What I am proposing in increasing our competence - paying attention to
things such as quality control, accountability and to designing in
sustainability to our projects. 

This is not easy. All too often, we see projects start with fanfare and
sometimes public funding only to peter out within a short time.
Vegetable gardens become weed ecologies.

We have learned the hard way that such outsomes frequently result from
being given too little time to design and implement a project, being
part of a too-dissimilar design team and from the different visions of
the members of a design team. When these differences become apparent,
perhaps in future we need to say NO to our participation.

The permaculture landscape displays discontinued and neglected
projects.I believe that we must cease doing permaculture things FOR
people irrespective of whether we are paid to do so. We need to replace
that practice with one of participation, in which we do things WITH
people. There needs to be a clear contribution by the community
organisations, schools or community gardeners we offer our skills to to
learn to sustain what we help set up after we leave. It's called partner
or community contribution and is a measure of their motivation and
enthusiasm to learn. Bill Mollison summed up this attitude when he
proposed that we work only with people who want to learn... that we work
where it counts.  

This might sound harsh, but we have just returned from working with
rural communities and a development project in the South Pacific. 
There, we work with people who want to learn and who have made a clear
and substantial contribution in the form of time and food to participate
in the project.

In contrast, we returned to the final stage of a project here in which
the client group wanted everything done for them, in which demand on
their time was to be kept minimal, in which their real contribution was
miniscule and in which attention to project sustainability was missing. 
We were unaware of these things when we entered the project.

I could only draw a drastic contrast between these two groups. We
realise now which is the most productive for us to work with - in Bill
Mollison's words, to work where it counts. Thanks for that bit of
advice, Bill! 

Permaculture Gone Stale?...

Speaking about Australia - the birthplace of permaculture - a
permaculture practitioner once suggested to me that the practice of
permaculture has become stale. 

He was suggesting that, after more than 21 years of development, during
which permaculture spread from its island homeland of Tasmania to the
world, permaculture was starting to stagnate. His solution was for an
infusion of new ideas and a renewed sense of direction, a

I don't know if his analysis is true or whether we need new ideas. What
I believe that we, as permacuilture activists, do need is a renewed look
at permaculture's principles and, somehow, through fora such as this
discussion network, to reinterpret these principles so that they become
the operating system of a permaculture technology based on the human
scale development (to use Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef's useful
definition) of communities. That way, we can all assist each other meet
the challenges of globalisation and define a permaculture pertinent to
the emerging needs of the new century.

It's unfortunate that, all too often, any attempt to analyse trends or
direction within the permaculture movement has been decried as a waste
of time... that our time would be better spent doing something
'practical'. Well, discussion has been foregone but there's little
by way of 'practical' examples of permaculture for the public to see.

This discussion suggests that that attitude is at last fading. There
seems to be a realisation that, in the final run, the growth or
stagnation of permaculture is up to us... every one of us.

...Russ Grayson
Russ Grayson and Fiona Campbell
PO Box 446, Kogarah NSW 2217 AUSTRALIA

Phone   02-9588 6931    (IDD-61+2+9588 6931)
Fax     9514 2611 (Mark fax: ATTN: RUSS GRAYSON - APACE) 
          (IDD-61+2+9514 2611)
Email: pacedge at

Permaculture education, publishing, design and development. 
NSW co-ordinator, Australian City Farms and Gardens Network.

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