[permaculture] Permaculture, Credibility, Relevance: Lessons from Agroecology

rafter sass rafter at liberationecology.org
Wed Jul 22 21:51:25 EDT 2009


It's been on my mind to respond to this for months now - since I  
received Toby's thoughtful response to my brief comparison of  
permaculture with agroecoogy. Just now I have the time and energy to  
finally reply.

Not coincidentally, I've just finished taking a 2-week intensive  
agroecology course here in Vermont. The class was crazy inspiring. We  
had instructors and participants from 9 countries (predominantly but  
not only from the Western Hemisphere). We had students, researchers,  
farmers, activists, extension agents, and a university president!

This fairly immersive, albeit brief, exposure to the agroecology scene  
has provided some valuable perspective for thinking about the Pc  
movement. My earlier comment, pasted in below, that Toby responded to  
in some depth, still stands:
 > If permaculture had focused more closely on crop ecology and  
 > development, and embraced academic research rather than (mostly)
 > spurned it, it would look something like the agroecology movement.
 > Fortunately, it didn't - more functional diversity in the system!

To expand a bit on that observation - not only have agroecologists  
embraced research, they have embraced a particular approach called  
Community Participatory Action Research (CPAR). In short, it means  
creating long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with community  
partners (generally but not always farmers), who provide sites and  
often subjects of the research, and in turn influence its direction,  
practice, and eventual use.

My impression is that this grounding in long-term community  
relationships, and in rigorous food system research, has lent the  
agroecology community some of that  cardinal virtue - humility - that  
has so often been the exception, rather than the norm, in the Pc  
scene. The humility that says: "We don't know all the answers. Here is  
the limited picture of what we know for sure. Here is what we only  
suspect, based on principle alone. Here are the questions that it  
might take years to find answers to, and here's how we'll work with  
you to figure it out."

These connections, and the attitude they inspire, are a big part of  
what the Pc movement has to learn from the agroecology world. (The Pc  
world has much to teach in return, as well- and I'll leave that for  
another discussion. Briefly: pedagogy, design process, design  
principles, and whole landscapes.)

Here is heart of it: agroecologists are able to partner with  
communities - with farmers, women's groups, and junior high schools -  
because they have stayed in the academic system. They've been fighting  
the good fight, for ecology-based food production, within research  
institutions, since the early 1980s. And because of this,  
agroecological researchers are able to support themselves, while doing  
sound scientific research on sustainable food systems, AND channel  
considerable resources to support the self-determination of their  
partner communities.

This picture provides a pretty stark contrast with the Pc scene - at  
least in the US, where I am most familiar with it. We don't need to  
emulate agroecology, but we DO need to learn the lessons that their  
experience and example offers us. Particularly here in what *seems* to  
be the most stratified and least diverse region of the global Pc  
scene, the USA.

Permaculturists, the time has come to invade academia!

There may have been a time when it was important for Pc to spurn  
scientific rigor, research, and documentation, in order to achieve the  
astounding growth that it has. That time has passed. For one thing,  
the climate in academia has changed. While it's no walk in the park,  
it's very possible to find sympathetic faculty, and funding  
opportunities, to pursue a permaculture-driven research agenda. I  
speak from experience: research faculty are *excited* about the ideas  
and research questions that emerge from the fertile ground of the Pc  
perspective. Particularly so, when those questions come free of the  
car-salesman-like cheerleading that characterizes so much Pc 'outreach.'

The sympathetic faculty are there - but virtually none of them mention  
permaculture in their work currently, due to the heavy shelling that  
Pc has taken over the years, for lack of rigor and for a too-cool-for- 
school attitude. We can change that. The world needs us too much for  
us to shy away from the humbling lessons and crucial resources offered  
by scientific research, and the community partnerships that it makes  

Academic institutions and scientific research are OF COURSE not for  
everybody - and I would never, ever want to suggest that Pc become  
only for academics and scientists. Please God, no. The core strength  
of Pc is it's ability to act as a bridge between scientific and  
popular understanding and practice.

What I am saying is this:
There are 1000s of new people cycling through PDCs every year.  
Probably there are 100s of those that are in a position where they  
COULD consider entering, or returning to, scientific study. Why don't  
we encourage them to do so? There are probably 1000s of folks already  
in the scene who are searching - often desperately - for some way to  
pursue an education in Pc design, who are searching for opportunities  
for professional development, and who are looking for ways to push the  
movement forward. Why don't we at least frame Pc as something that CAN  
be studied rigorously, in an institutional setting? Permaculture IS  
robust enough to handle a critically-minded research environment, if  
permaculture partisans are critical-minded enough to advocate for it.

So, instead of dismissing research out of hand, let's create a vibrant  
discussion of where and when and how you can take your passion for  
permaculture into universities. Let's talk about the programs and  
institutions that are most friendly to this approach - where we can do  
Pc, where we can do CPAR, and where we can do both. Let's talk about  
the inherent challenges and limitations to the institutional route,  
and how to deal with them - rather than assuming these two worlds can  
never meet.

As for Toby's argument that (1) We don't have to research Pc, because  
it's already been done, and (2) We can't research Pc, because it's too  

(and please forgive this over-simplification of a thoughtful argument)

...I respectfully submit that Toby's statements constitute a very  
accurate reading of where the Pc movement has come from, and the  
challenges and opportunities that have shaped its emergence. They  
don't reflect the kind and scope of research that is more and more  
possible today. And they don't tell us where the Pc movement needs to  
develop, in order to grow not only in membership, but in credibility  
and relevance too.

Industrial ag and middle-of-the-road organic are holding court, for  
now, in the labs, classrooms, and experimental fields of the research  
universities. We are needed too badly to just give up, and stay out of  
our society's centers of research, learning, and teaching. Let's go  
and get those resources for our movement. Think of how 60s radicals  
colonized the universities in the 70s and 80s - think both of their  
victories and failures - and think, also, of the good work of our  
fellow travelers in the agroecology scene.

And let's spread like mycelia through the halls of academia!

Looking forward to your thoughts and questions...


> ------------------------------Toby wrote:
> rafter t. sass wrote:
> >
> > If permaculture had focused more closely on crop ecology and  
> community
> > development, and embraced academic research rather than (mostly)
> > spurned it, it would look something like the agroecology movement.
> > Fortunately, it didn't - more functional diversity in the system!
> Good observation, Rafter. I've cogitated a bit on the fact that
> permaculturists have ignored, for the most part, the idea of  
> collecting
> data and documenting research. Being a former scientist, it used to  
> bug
> me a great deal, and it seemed like it reduced permaculture's
> credibility. But I've realized that there is a pretty good explanation
> for it. First, there's been a ton of research done in the various  
> fields
> that permaculture helps link together, such as organic farming, tree
> crops, renewable energy, water harvesting, and all the rest. And
> whole-systems theory has a mass of both mathematical and empirical
> research behind it, as does ecology, and those form the  
> underpinnings of
> permaculture. So the data are there, just not under the heading of
> "permaculture."
> But more to the point, if you were trying to measure the effectiveness
> of permaculture, what would you measure? Does my yard yield more food
> than my chemical or straight organic gardener neighbor's? Probably  
> not,
> and although I suspect their inputs are higher, they might not be  
> since
> I pour on about 10 yards of free tree trimmings or mulch every year or
> two. But how do you measure that as an input, since it's waste, not
> manufactured, and not much of the mulch goes to growing food? I'm sure
> my yard is better habitat, but my neighbors are not trying to create
> habitat, while there are some yards where the owner is trying purely  
> for
> habitat that may host more biodiversity than mine, but that don't
> produce food. Too many variables for any but the most sophisticated
> statistician, and even then, those numbers would be open to argument.
> What I'm saying is, I'm not sure what you would measure to assess
> whether permaculture outperforms anything else, and I don't know what
> you would compare it to. Is the comparison to a site using chemical
> methods? Not really, since permaculture is not a method, it's a design
> approach. So do you compare it to a site designed using, say, holistic
> management? But a site using permaculture for its design might have  
> very
> different goals than one using HM, so how would you compare the two?  
> By
> designing two side-by side sites with the same goals but using
> permaculture versus some other design approach? Good luck with getting
> that one off the ground!
> So I think we're back at saying Pc uses a variety of tools, and each  
> of
> those tools has data to support it.
> For me, the proof is less tangible. I walk into a place that's  
> designed
> using permaculture, and it feels more alive than one done any other  
> way.
> Can't measure that, but you sure can feel it.
> Toby
> rafter t. sass
> The Liberation Ecology Project
> liberationecology.org
> 518-567-7407
> skype: raughter

More information about the permaculture mailing list