[permaculture] Why Bother With Permaculture? An essay by Ted Trainer

Scott Pittman scott at permaculture.org
Wed Dec 19 10:38:34 EST 2007

I never quite know what to say or do about those critical of permaculture
based on a partial understanding of what it is.  

While I couldn't agree more that the visible parts of permaculture
gardening, building houses, water harvesting and remediation, forestry are
at best survival techniques in the coming hard times - but that is just the
beginning of what permaculture has to offer.  There is a whole other part of
the design system called "invisible structures" that deals with economic,
social, and financial aspects of life and it is within this section is the
true opportunity to offer new strategies to deal with corporatism,
capitalism, and rampant consumerism.  If this isn't happening then it is the
fault of the teachers who either don't understand the implications of
"invisible structures" or are too lazy to give it the depth of thought and
creativity to be able to teach it to their students.

I have developed an unsavory reputation as a conservative grump (to put  it
kindly) for my insistence on retaining "all" of the curriculum for the
permaculture design course, as handed down by Bill Mollison.  That does not
mean that there aren't thing that can be added and updated but that the
pedagogy of the course as directed by the curriculum is a whole system and
was designed that way.  I can't tell you how many certified designers I have
met who don't use or teach "invisible structures", so it is no wonder that
in many quarters permaculture is considered another gardening technique.  It
is like teaching organic gardening without mentioning soil!

Bill called it "strategies for an alternative nation" in the final section
of his "Design Manual".  While it is sketchily drawn it is profound in its
implications and it is up to us to flesh it out and create new possible
connections and relationships that lead to a sustainable humankind, if we
are unable to do that then we indeed do need to join the Dodo and dinosaur
as evolutionary dead ends in the story of Gaia.

Scott Pittman
Permaculture Institute
-----Original Message-----
From: Jim [mailto:ashevillecurrencyproject at gmail.com] 
Sent: Tuesday, December 18, 2007 9:01 PM
To: permaculture at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject: [permaculture] Why Bother With Permaculture? An essay by Ted

                        *_ Why Bother With Permaculture?_*

                        _(From the International Permaculture Journal.)

    Ted Trainer argues that although the planet cannot be saved without
    Permaculture, not enough people in the movement realise where
    Permaculture has to fit into the solution.

    [I found this essay when Bart Anderson of EnergyBulletin.net quoted 
    Rob Hopkins of transitionculture.org
    about some feedback/questions  Ted Trainer had for Rob about  the
    British Transition Towns movement.
    Because essays critiquing permaculture are rare, I'm posting this in

    Could you not include it in your replies?
    Those of us who read the list in digest form have a lot of scrolling
    to do. If you think I shouldn't have posted something so long.
    feel free to send me a note off-list.
    -- Jim]

We are fast approaching a period of enormous and probably chaotic 
change. Industrial-affluent-consumer society is unsustainable and is 
rapidly running into serious difficulties

Permaculture is a crucial component of the solution to the global 
predicament. However I want to argue that Permaculture is far from 
sufficient, and indeed that it can be counter productive if it is not 
put in the right context. That is, unless we are careful, promoting 
Permaculture can actually help to reinforce our existing unsustainable 
society. We must do much more than just contribute to the spread of 
Permaculture. We must locate Permaculture within a wider campaign of 
radical social change.

Before I try to explain this I need to outline how I see the global 
predicament we are in. Whether or not you will agree with my conclusions 
about what needs to be done and where Permaculture fits in will depend 
greatly on whether you agree with my view of the situation we are in.

There is an overwhelmingly strong case that industrial-affluent-consumer 
society is grossly unsustainable. Australian per capita rates of 
resource use and environmental impact are far higher than can be kept up 
for long, or than could be had by all the world's people. We are in 
other words well beyond the limits to growth. Following are a few of the 
points that support this conclusion. (For detailed explanation see my 
_The Conserver Society_ (Zed, 1995) or_ Towards a Sustainable Society _, 
(Envirobooks, 1995.)

- It takes about 4 to 5 ha of productive land to provide the lifestyle 
people in Sydney have (our "footprint). If 11 billion people (the 
expected population of the world late next century) were to live in that 
fashion about 50 billion ha of productive land would be needed; but that 
is_ 8 times_ all the productive land on the planet.

- If all the world's _present_ number of people each used energy at the 
Australian per capita rate then estimated potentially recoverable 
resources of coal, oil, gas, shale oil, tar sand oil, and uranium would 
be exhausted in under 40 years.

- The climate scientists are saying that if we are to prevent the 
greenhouse problem from getting any worse we must cut annual fossil fuel 
use by 60-80% of its present volume. If we cut by 60% and shared the 
remaining energy equally between the 11 billion people expected you 
would have to get by on only 1/18 of the present Australian per capita 

- The environment problem is basically due to all the resources our 
affluent-consumer lifestyles are taking from the environment and then 
dumping into it as waste. It takes 20 tonnes of new materials to provide 
for one American every year. One species, humans, is taking 40% of the 
biological productivity of the planet's entire land area, mostly to 
provide well for only 1 billion people. If another 10 billion want to 
live as we in the rich countries do how much habitat will be left for 
the other possibly 30 million species? We cannot possibly expect to stop 
the extinction of species unless we drastically reverse this demand for 
biological resources and the consequent destruction of habitat. We 
cannot do that without huge reduction in production and consumption.

These sorts of figures leave little doubt that the way of life taken for 
granted in industrial-affluent-consumer society cannot possibly be kept 
up for long or extended to all people. We can have it only because the 
one-fifth who live in rich countries like Australia are grabbing 
four-fifths of world resource production to provide per capita use rates 
that are 15-20 times those averaged by the poorest half of the world's 

The outlook becomes far worse when we add the implications of our manic 
obsession with economic growth . If Australia averaged 4% growth from 
now to 2050 and by then the expected 11 billion people had risen to the 
living standards we would then have, _the total world economic output 
would be 220 times what it is today_. The_ present_ levels of production 
and consumption are unsustainable, yet we are committed to an economy 
and a culture which is determined to increase living standards and the 
GNP, constantly and without limit. It should be obvious that no 
plausible .assumptions about what miraculous breakthroughs technology 
will achieve will enable continuation of the living standards and the 
systems taken for granted today; the foregoing multiples are far too big 
for that.

This blind obsession with raising living standards and the GNP is the 
basic cause of all our major global problems, including resource 
depletion, environmental destruction and the deprivation of the Third 
World. For example the Third World has been developed into a form which 
enables its land, labour and capital to produce mostly for the benefit 
of the rich countries and their corporations. Most people in the Third 
World not only get little or nothing from the development that is taking 
place, their productive capacity is put into producing for export. Hence 
an increasingly critical literature argues that development is plunder 
and that growth deprives.

Globalisation is making all these problems worse. We are seeing a rapid 
restructuring of the world to give the transnational corporations and 
banks even greater freedom and access to resources, markets and cheap 

This basic limits to growth analysis shows our predicament to be 
extremely serious. We are far beyond sustainability. The problems cannot 
be solved without radical change.


The solution?


If the limits analysis is valid then a sustainable society would have to 
involve much less affluent lifestyles, highly self-sufficient local 
economies, little trade, little heavy industry, cooperative and 
participatory systems and a steady-state economy. This means much more 
than merely getting rid of a capitalist economy. It means developing an 
economy in which there is no economic growth, the GNP per capita is a 
small fraction of what it is in Australia today, no interest is earned 
on savings ( because if it is you have a growth economy), most economic 
activity takes place outside the cash economy and there are many free 
goods from the local commons, the "unemployment" rate might be 80% 
(because most work and production would not be for money), and in which 
much "tax" is paid via contributions of time to local working bees and 
committees. In addition a sustainable society requires fundamental 
changes in world view and values. Cooperation must become the dominant 
concern, not competition. A strong collective orientation must replace 
today's rampant individualism. Affluence and consumption must become 
distasteful; frugality and self-sufficiency must become major sources of 
life satisfaction. Giving must become a more important source of 
satisfaction than getting.

If the limits to growth analysis is valid then _we have no choice_ about 
these changes. Whether we like it or not we must make these sorts of 
changes if we are to develop a sustainable society.

Many of us with some direct experience of alternative lifestyles and the 
Ecovillage movement know how easy it would be to build a sustainable and 
just and admirable society. Many who have lived simply and in 
cooperative communities know it is possible to design and run 
settlements in which people have a very high quality of life at a 
relaxed pace, in supportive communities, secure from unemployment, 
poverty and violence, on very low levels of per capita resource 
consumption. (This is not to assume that our society will make the 
transition. I am increasingly pessimistic about this.)


The implications for Permaculture.


Permaculture design principles are obviously crucial for sustainability. 
Viable settlements must be designed to provide most of their needs from 
the local landscape without external inputs of resources, and in ways 
that are ecologically sustainable. But given the nature and the 
magnitude of our limits to growth problem much more than Permaculture is 
required. Fundamental economic, political and cultural change is 
essential and without these Permaculture will be of no significance even 
if it flourishes. Unfortunately much Permaculture literature and many 
courses tend to leave the impression that spreading knowledge about 
Permaculture techniques is sufficient to achieve a sustainable world and 
that there is no need to question affluent living standards or the 
present economy. In general far too little emphasis is put on the fact 
that a sustainable society cannot be achieved without radical a change 
in lifestyles, in the economy, in the geography of settlements and in 
world views and values.

The important point here is that Permaculture can very easily be part of 
the problem. It is part of the problem if does not increase the 
realisation that affluent living standards and this economy are totally 
incompatible with sustainability and with global economic justice. Much 
Permaculture literature not only does not increase people's 
understanding of these crucial themes, much of it reinforces the 
impression that fundamental change is not necessary because all we have 
to do is adopt things like organic food, composting, recycling and 
community supported agriculture. Permaculture is part of the problem if 
it is essentially enabling people to do some ecologically correct things 
in their gardens, such as growing some organic vegies, and then feel 
that they are making a significant contribution to saving the planet.

Many people do such "light green" things without questioning affluent 
lifestyles within a growth economy and without seeing these as the basic 
causes of the global crisis. For too many Permaculture is little more 
than another toy to play with on their hobby farms.

Similar criticisms can be made of the Ecovillage movement. This is an 
extremely important development; we can now point to functioning 
examples of more sustainable settlements. But the movement is not 
putting anywhere near enough emphasis on the development of 
self-sufficient economies, living simply and cooperatively and on the 
need to get rid of an economic system based on market forces, growth and 
the profit motive. It tends to give the impression that it will be 
sufficient to build Ecovillages that will function within the present 

In other words Permaculture can easily be seen as another 'technical 
fix" that can save industrial affluent-consumer society. I think most 
people see things like solar energy, community supported agriculture, 
LETS, earth building, reed bed sewage and Permaculture as new 
ecologically friendly techniques that will enable us to solve resource 
and environment problems and therefore to go on living with high living 
standards, growth and free market economies, jet-away holidays etc. They 
see technical advance as capable of eliminating any need for fundamental 
change in lifestyles or in the economy. I think that we are giving the 
impression that Permaculture is another of the technologies that will 
help to save industrial-affluent-consumer society, when the most 
important message to be given now is that we have to largely scrap that 

There is a seriously mistaken theory of change underlying much of the 
Permaculture movement. Many seem to assume that that the more people we 
get to take an interest in Permaculture and to practise it the closer we 
move to the establishment of a just and sustainable society. This is not 
so. If all we do is work at increasing the numbers who understand and 
like and practice Permaculture this will probably have no more 
revolutionary significance than if we increased the number of people who 
are interested in the RSPCA or golf. This will just reach the point 
where all those potentially interestable in Permaculture will have 
become interested, and will be out their reading the books and growing 
things, while still living in and benefiting from and not challenging 
affluent-consumer society and the growth economy.

Again, replacing that society is the crucial task, not getting more 
people to like and practice Permaculture. Merely teaching Permaculture 
techniques will not get them to see that affluent industrial consumer 
society is a terrible mistake, that capitalism must be scrapped, that a 
growth economy must be scrapped, that we must build small and highly 
self-sufficient economies based on cooperation and participation, and 
that very different lifestyles and values must be embraced. People can 
become very knowledgable and keen about Permaculture without 
understanding any of this.

Why do you want people to take up Permaculture? Just to enjoy the idea 
and the practice? Or to help us build a sustainable society. If your our 
answer is the latter, then we will not get this outcome just by 
increasing people's understanding of Permaculture techniques. We make 
sure that wherever possible we connect Permaculture with the global 
scene and the need for radical social change, so that people understand 
that Permaculture is necessary but only as part of the bigger picture. 
We can't claim to be centrally concerned with achieving sustainability 
if all we talk about is Permaculture. It is in fact only a one element 
in the list of conditions and factors required for a sustainable world 
order. But there can be no doubt that it is a crucially important element.



    *The Simpler Wa*y: Analyses of global problems (environment,
    limits to growth, Third World...)and the sustainable alternative
    society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative
    communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer.

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