[permaculture] Time for one reflection before NAPC1
stevenlawrencehart at gmail.com
Mon Aug 11 14:01:30 EDT 2014
I offer this blog as an excellent piece of reflection. Which, I feel is
very timely while many of us are discussing the revitalisation of many
sectors of our world of Permaculture. It is Joe Atkinson's, who has given
approval to drop it in here .
PERMACULTURE, DIVERSITY & INCLUSION
*Could we be better at valuing the marginal
<http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_11/> and integrating
<http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_8/> a more diverse
<http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_10/> range of cultures &
perspectives into the permaculture community?*
During the last four years I've help to instigate, co-design, secure
funding for, and support the co-ordination of a wonderful project called
the European Permaculture Teachers' Partnership <http://permateachers.eu/>
The aim <http://permateachers.eu/project-objectives-and-strategy/> of the
project was to provide a support network for teachers across Europe, many
of whom were working in quite isolated conditions. The project was to
provide a forum for these teachers to exchange teaching methods & course
curricula and see examples of good permaculture practice by visiting local
projects. Meanwhile, comparing organisational structures of national
permaculture associations & institutes was to provide inspiration &
encouragement to those countries that lacked such organisations, so that
they would feel better equipped to establish them. Learning materials would
be translated to hasten the spread of permaculture in other languages.
Finally, a discussion on how to widen participation was to examine
questions of how to make permaculture accessible to a wider audience. In
effect we wanted to accelerate succession in the European permaculture
The project has been extremely successful. During the two-year funded phase
of the project we held a series of seven week-long gatherings; over 150
participants from 23 different countries met with peers and discussed
various aspects of permaculture education. Two new national permaculture
organisations have been established with a third on the way, a new diploma
process has been designed in one country, and an older, less functional
ones revisited and overhauled in another. One of the partner organisations
has gone on to secure further funds for transnational teacher development
European permaculture teachers gather in Slovenia in October 2012
*An Emerging Culture*
The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive and at
times deeply touching, describing how the project has changed their lives
for the better, made them feel more connected and how we have created a new
family. Indeed, during the project a strong culture emerged that connected
many of the participants on a profound level.
This culture emerged largely as a result of the contributions of
participants, who were invited to facilitate, lead sessions and activities.
This was a learning journey for them and I'm deeply grateful to them for
their contributions and commend them for their courage in stepping outside
their own comfort zones to take up the challenge.
This culture was characterised by a lot of standing in circles, sometimes
holding hands, often being encouraged to close our eyes and be led in a
guided meditation or grounding exercise
<http://www.shamanshealingcircle.com/grounding-exercise.html>. At other
times, tools from Joanna Macy's Work That Reconnects
<http://workthatreconnects.org/> were used, such as The Milling
are encouraged to move around a space making eye contact with others as
they pass until they come to a standstill facing someone else. They were
then asked questions that encouraged them to share intimate thoughts: "what
are your dreams?" etc.
Another significant feature of the culture was singing. Often we were all
encouraged to sing together, often singing songs in rounds. Sometimes we
were led in a call-and-response song where the responsibility to sing the
call part passed around the circle, so that everyone had the opportunity to
sing solo in front of the group.
The final celebration took the form of a ceremony where everyone was asked
to walk through a door into a garden: on passing through the door they had
water sprinkled on them, and a mudbindi
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bindi_%28decoration%29> applied to their face.
These exercises and rituals are undoubtedly POWERFUL
<http://joeatkinsonpermaculture.weebly.com/blog#>. And they are important
tools for those looking to foster deeper connections with others, seeking
an inner transition, or hoping to add a spiritual dimension to an
experience. However, after reflecting on the widespread use of them in the
EPT, I'm left wondering if we should have explored issues of diversity &
inclusion, because aspects of the culture that connected many of the
participants also marginalised and excluded others.
One attendee climbed out of a window to avoid participating in the closing
ceremony, another was clearly made to feel deeply uncomfortable when he
refused to join in. Later conversations with others revealed that they went
along with these activities because of peer pressure, but they found them
uncomfortable, embarrassing or just "didn't get it". At other times during
the project other people discreetly slipped away when things started to get
"a bit too hippy-ish".
I also tend to feel uncomfortable with these kinds of exercises, but during
the EPT I generally went along with them due in part to peer pressure (more
on this later), and in part because I didn't want to damage the confidence
of any trainee facilitators by making a big fuss in the middle of their
sessions. Even so, on the last night of the project I found myself hiding
behind a pile of straw bales to avoid yet another face-painting ritual, and
then quietly slipping away to avoid the final party in case there was more
of the same.
EPT Participants can be forgiven for bringing this kind of practice into
the culture of the project. In the eight years I've been around
permaculture I've seen it crop up regularly at various permaculture
gatherings and teacher trainings. And some people seem to be integrating
quasi-spiritual <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGURz1WE7yE> practices
with Permaculture Design Courses
<http://permaculture.org.uk/courses?field_course_type_value=55> (PDC). But
again and again I also find myself in conversation with people grumbling
about how they feel uncomfortable with - or embarrassed on permaculture's
behalf because of - this stuff.
When I've broached the subject of my own discomfort with the people who are
enthusiastic about rituals, group meditation, singing etc, I'm met with a
range of responses. Some people acknowledge that these kinds of activities
need to be very carefully considered before their inclusion in a programme.
But I've also received a kind of knowing, sympathetic look and words to the
effect of "Oh, you haven't developed your spiritual side yet".
This implies that any truly holistic understanding of permaculture is
contingent on integrating some form of spirituality into your life. Having
spent many years contemplating my own spirituality and consequently
becoming a humanist <https://humanism.org.uk/>, I don't agree.
I also believe that it's counter to the original intentions of Bill
Mollison (a scientist <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Mollison>) & David
Holmgren (who self-identifies as an atheist in Permaculture Principles &
Pathways Beyond Sustainability
As I understand it, the ethics of permaculture
<http://permacultureprinciples.com/ethics/> were deliberately pared back to
a minimal set of values that could be consistent with, and integrated into,
almost all major belief systems; spiritual or otherwise. It is inherently
atheistic, in the sense that it is not, in and of itself, a religious or
I believe that the enforced use of symbols and practices (e.g. meditation,
grounding exercises) drawn from certain cultural & religious traditions at
permaculture courses and events is potentially damaging. By creating an
association between permaculture and certain forms of (new age-approved)
spirituality, we limit permaculture and undermine its cultural
"portability". By borrowing the hallmarks of some religions we potentially
exclude others, not to mention the secular: we risk creating a kind of
Furthermore, the appropriation of religious symbolism & practice
potentially carries the risk of offending the very traditions from which
they have been drawn by using them in inappropriate, disrespectful or
To be truly inclusive as teachers & facilitators, I believe that we should
keep religion out of our permaculture teaching and credit our students
with the intelligence to make their own choices about spirituality.
When the topic of discomfort about singing in front of a group has been
raised, I've been told that "There is evidence that singing reduces stress
hormones". And this is true.
However, there is also evidence that performance anxiety greatly elevates
coerced through peer pressure into singing in front of an audience of 50
people can be deeply traumatic for some people. As teachers, I feel we
should give deep consideration to when (and whether) it is appropriate to
create situations where people are required to sing on front of others.
Finally I encounter a kind of tacit judgement that I'm just a bit uptight
and would benefit from loosening up a bit. I admit that this is true to
some extent. But while I identify as middle class, liberal and open minded,
this is in the context if my cultural background: Yorkshire
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Yorkshire> in the north of
England. We are socially conservative, repressed and proud of it. We have a
long tradition of deeply reserved behaviour, understated compliments,
adversarial humour and muttering sarcastic comments into our beer. And to
be honest, I'm fine with that.
I have no cultural frame of reference for holding hands in a field "feeling
the energy go through my feet and into the earth". When I'm cajoled into
these kinds of activities I feel utterly inauthentic, like I'm betraying my
true identity and pretending to everyone around me. Making me participate
in these activities makes me more uptight, not less. And there are plenty
of folks who are a lot more uptight than me!
*Privilege & Marginalisation*
Being a white, middle class man from Western Europe I am profoundly
privileged. How can I possibly claim to feel marginalised? Well, that's
kind of the point: if someone as privileged as me can feel this
marginalised, who else is being marginalised but doesn't feel as empowered
as me to speak up?
How about people who are introverts or chronically shy? I've had students
tell me how relieved they were that the PDC we'd just taught wasn't full of
"happy clappy stuff" because it would have made them leave the course. I've
had another student tell me that they went through a living hell during
what seemed to me a to be a completely innocuous ice-breaker exercise on
the first day of a PDC.
And how about people from other cultural backgrounds? There are countless
other cultures that are far more reserved and socially conservative than us
And it seems that those of us who are uncomfortable about this stuff are in
good company. An experienced British permaculture teacher recounted a story
of a similar exercise at an International Permaculture Convergence many
years ago. He was standing in a circle next to Bill Mollison. When they
were told to hold hands Bill turned to him and muttered "load of fucking
And yet those of us who feel marginalised and excluded by these practices
seem to keep going along with them. And those who promote them don't seem
to "get" how others feel about it. Why?
*Peer Pressure: Obedience & Conformity*In group situations, most people
surrender a great deal of power to the leader, be they a 'superior'
colleague, a teacher, a facilitator, or other figure of authority. As the
famous Milgram Experiment <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvSNg0HZwk> shows,
most people have a strong tendency to obey authority figures, even if they
are instructing them to take actions that are completely at odds with their
internal ethics and morals.
On top of our tendency towards obedience, we have a strong propensity to
conform to group behaviours. Famous examples showing this include the Asch
Experiment, the Smoke Filled Room Study and a clip - "Groupthink" - from
the US T.V. show Candid Camera.
What I find interesting in all of these examples is the degree of
discomfort that the subject feels during the process. The situation places
them in a state of cognitive dissonance
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance> between what their
senses, ethics, beliefs and reasoning tell them and the signals received
from superiors and/or the behaviour of the group. For many, the easiest way
to reduce the dissonance and discomfort is to obey or conform: the
alternative is to choose potential conflict with an authority figure or
with a group: unfavourable odds.
As teachers and facilitators this gives us an incredible amount of power in
group situations. And with this power comes a great responsibility to care
for the people <http://permacultureprinciples.com/ethics/people-care/> in
*Ambiguous Feedback* *Signals*
I would hope that any professional permaculture teacher or facilitator who
is serious about their practice would apply self-regulation and accept
feedback <http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_4/>. So why don't
the people who are placing others in such discomfort seem to be doing so?
One would think that a participant climbing out of a window to avoid an
activity is a pretty clear feedback signal. But I'm not so sure.
If a facilitator has personally derived a great deal of benefit from the
kind of exercises outlined above, they're likely to be positively disposed
towards the activity, and be keen to share them: "I found this really
powerful and beneficial, so I'd like to share with others so they can
benefit too". Their starting position about the activity is positive, and
due to confirmation bias <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias>,
they're likely tointerpret
that does come to them in a way that confirms their starting position
And if they haven't personally experienced discomfort around this kind of
activity, the likelihood of someone else being uncomfortable is much less
likely to be on their radar: they aren't looking for negative feedback.
If they're leading an activity with a group of 50 people, their adrenalin
is likely to be high. They're thinking about what to say next; is what
they've planned going to work? What's the weather doing? Are the group
doing the task correctly? A myriad of questions and thoughts run through
the facilitator's mind. The people who are a bit uncomfortable, but go
along with the activity out of peer pressure are not necessarily outwardly
giving a clear feedback signal; certainly, any signals that they do give
may be too subtle for the facilitator's distracted and adrenalin-drenched
brain to pick up on. Those who quietly slip away are not even visible. If
the vast majority of the group seem to be going along with the activities
and joining in, the feedback signal is overwhelmingly positive and
In the absence of clear, unambiguous feedback signals, the facilitator is
understandably likely to miss the fact that they've unwittingly made a
number of their participants uncomfortable, that they've potentially
alienated and excluded members of their group.
But this is part of the challenge of truly welcoming diversity and creating
a genuinely inclusive culture. To do so we must be wary of the danger of
confirmation bias, cultivate empathy and actively invite - and deeply
engage with - critical feedback and different perspectives.
*Summary*Hopefully, the EPT has provided a safe space for people to try out
their teaching and facilitation techniques. As teachers of permaculture,
any EPT participants that did feel uncomfortable during these exercises are
already very much "bought-in" to permaculture and are probably used to
seeing some of this stuff. No real harm has been done.
But what about those people on the edges of permaculture: those we wish to
invite in? What about PDC course participants that EPT participants are
going to be teaching? Should teachers use any of these methods and
activities on introductory courses or PDCs?
If we're serious about living permaculture ethics of people care
<http://permacultureprinciples.com/ethics/people-care/>, and principles of
integrating <http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_8/> asdiverse
<http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_10/> a range of people as
possible into the permaculture community, I think we really need to pay
attention to the feedback <http://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_4/> we
receive from those people at margins
My plea to teachers and facilitators is this: If you're going to perform
rituals, conduct group meditation, use techniques like those from The Work
that Reconnects, or compel people to sing, please make these activities
genuinely optional: be absolutely clear about what you're offering and what
it entails, and be absolutely clear that it's absolutely OK to not join in.
Better still, avoid putting people in uncomfortable situations by making
the default option non-participation. Make it so that people who want to do
this stuff have to actively choose to do it, rather than putting people in
a situation where they feel they have to climb out of a window, hide behind
straw bales or quietly slip away.
Here are some questions around inclusion that all teachers & facilitators
might find useful to reflect on:
What might it feel like to have a group leader and a group of people
encouraging you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable?
Have you ever gone along with something that didn't agree with because the
group encouraged you to do it? How did you feel about yourself afterwards?
Have you ever taken an individual stand against a large group of people?
How might it feel?
Have you ever been excluded from a group? How did that feel?
How could you develop your practice to avoid excluding people?
Is a permaculture course or event the right place for spiritual practices
or exercises designed to create deep connection?
More information about the permaculture