Permaculture and Metaphysics

Photo © Craig Mackintosh

I recently had a brief email conversation with someone (a person whose name I shall omit), and I’d like to share it with you to get your thoughts. Perhaps I’m opening a can of worms here, but I can’t help myself. I am opening this potential can of worms for three reasons:

  1. I personally often feel frustrated that too many permaculturists are mixing subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements into their courses, and are thereby helping to ensure permaculture is relegated to the periphery rather than — as desperately needs to happen — being taken up broad scale by all people everywhere, regardless of their culture and preferred belief system.
  2. I’m very curious as to the kind of responses/feedback I’ll get, as it will help me gauge how likely we are to be successful as a movement that is supposed to be trying to help (all) the people of the world get onto a path with promise.
  3. I want to take this opportunity to get people, and particularly permaculture teachers, thinking carefully about the principles and appropriateness behind what they include in their courses, and what they don’t.

Now, before I proceed further, I want to clearly express that I have nothing against spirituality — indeed, it is clear that mankind’s lack of spiritual development is a central cause of our modern woes. Spirituality goes beyond hedonism and living for the moment, and becomes inclusive of concepts of altruism and objectivity and can lift a man above his baser instincts to drive him to become a force for good in the world. Man’s spirituality grants him the ability to think beyond necessity, beyond desire, so he can make decisions based on principle. Where I take issue is that people are taking their own subjective views on spirituality — including elements that are belief-based only, and therefore unprovable — and are blending it with the provable, observable science of permaculture. Teaching concepts that are not scientifically provable not only undermines that teacher’s own credibility, but, when presented in a course titled with the word ‘permaculture’, then also undermines the credibility of all permaculture teachers.

The conversation began thus:

Hello Craig, wonder if we could gain some publicity for the events below, or any other hints? Would you prefer a "text only" version, with or without poster attachments? All advice is welcomed, best wishes….

The poster attachments were for two courses. One of these courses focussed on a practical element of permaculture design, the other on ‘experiencing Earth Spirit’, taught by someone describing themselves as a dowser and geomancist. Now, I can categorically state that, personally, if my first exposure to permaculture had been through such an event, I would have promptly turned around and likely never examined permaculture concepts again. Yes, this is my subjective view, and I am a mere mortal who can’t lay claim to understanding all the mysteries of the universe. Perhaps you, personally, would not react thus, and perhaps such a course would be exactly your ‘thing’, but the point, as shared above, is that you can be sure that despite your own spiritual preferences, if you call the course ‘permaculture’ then it’s critical that you show respect for all other permaculture teachers — many of whom are unlikely to subscribe to your belief-set.

My response to the email was:

Hi …

I’m sorry, but we do not promote courses which mix the science of permaculture up with metaphysics. Such courses have marginalised permaculture and helped ensure it has stayed a fringe movement, when it needs to be accepted/respected and acted upon by people of every culture/religion/belief-set.

Thanks for your understanding.

Kind regards


The good-hearted response came back:

Appreciate your reply Craig. Can’t imagine metaphysics marginalises permaculture, nor anything else! There is spirit in everything, & until we recognise our spiritual nature our animal nature will continue running the planet. Love permaculture nonetheless, keep up the good work!

As I felt the need to help clarify my initial response, I came back with the following:

Thanks for your message …

Permaculturists have nothing against spirituality. At least I don’t. But the question is, what ‘kind’ of spirituality are you promoting? There are as many understandings of metaphysics as there are species of trees. If you associate any specific, subjective belief-set with ‘permaculture’, then you can lead some people to believe that all permaculturists agree with that subjective belief-set. Logically, that translates to some people thinking that in order to be a permaculturist, you must subscribe to that belief set – therefore causing them to turn around and walk the other way.

I don’t have time to go into lots of detail, but you’ll get a reasonable understanding of my view on this from a comment I put on our forum a while back:

I confess to only having sped-read this thread, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents for what they’re worth.

I remember at the end of a PDC I attended, there was a one-hour segment where people had opportunity to provide feedback on the course, and to make suggestions for how it could be improved next time around. A few points were mentioned, and then one person spoke up with:

"Next time, I think we should devote one day to spirituality."

I sat wondering if someone would say anything. Nobody did.

I was personally tempted to speak up and say "I couldn’t disagree with you more." But as nobody echoed the person’s sentiments, it didn’t seem necessary.

Now, the reason I disagreed with the suggestion so strongly is not because I’m against spirituality. The problem is this – what spirituality, exactly, will you devote the day to? Permaculture is not, and should not, be directly associated with a particular set of beliefs. Permaculture can and should be implemented by every culture and by people from every spiritual or non-spiritual background. By directly associating permaculture with a particular, specific, belief system you are ruling out participation from all those with other belief-sets. You are marginalising permaculture, and saying that to be a permaculturist, you must agree with this subjective belief system.

If you were to "devote one day to spirituality", but without marginalising permaculture, you’d have to have your ‘spiritual’ day in a way that is representative of every belief system that currently resides in the minds of all individuals worldwide. Your day would need to, without bias, represent everything from Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Congo ancestor worshipping, Vietnamese spirit worship, animism, pantheism, rapture-predicting evangelicals, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. There are literally thousands of religions and spiritual concepts that would need to be represented and respected. If one just selects a particular belief set, like, say, Shamanism or ‘earth based spirituality’, you’re taking liberties on behalf of permaculturists everywhere — wrapping permaculture in a cloak that other permaculturists would not agree with, and will often find offence with.

I’ve been dismayed to find ‘definitions’ of permaculture online, where people ask "what is permaculture?" and get answers like "permaculture is a combination of organic agriculture and new age philosophies". Such definitions arise because people do not make a clearer delineation about what permaculture is. Such definitions cause a large proportion of people who dearly need to investigate and implement permaculture (that’s pretty much everyone) to write it off as peripheral nonsense before they’ve got to page one.

I think we should ask ourselves why permaculture has not moved forward as fast as it should have, could have, over the last thirty-something years? Is it possible that it’s been connected with smelly, tie-died clothing wearing pot-smokers (or in the case of Shamanism, psychedelic drug takers), etc., so it gets sidelined by mainstream society? I’ve even seen a video somewhere of permaculturists sitting in a hand-holding circle around a tree, crying and wailing over the death of the tree’s peers, and generally making themselves look, if I may, ridiculous.

For me, permaculture is a design system, and one that works in harmony with any belief system (well, with the possible exception of the religion of perpetual growth-based capitalism). There’s no reason why a PDC cannot begin with cultural blessings like a Maori prayer, and I think most permaculture teachers would be honored by it, but a PDC should not include subjective spiritual elements in its actual course content. The reason is that permaculture teachers should teach things that are provable. In the case of Shamanism. Why not run a PDC first, and then have a few days of Shamanism and its associated rituals as a post-PDC optional add-on afterwards, targeting those who are specifically interested in that, rather than mixing it in with the provable science of permaculture in a way where some will appreciate it and some will be forever turned off permaculture?

I encourage all permaculturists to not marginalise and slow down the uptake of permaculture design systems by mixing it up with religion/spirituality/metaphysics. We need to break down barriers, and not erect them. I think we should respect people of any religion and/or belief set, and by directly associating permaculture with one specific spiritual framework, then you’re not respecting all.

In addition to the above comment, for your interest, our PRI PDC Teachers agree to the following definition if they want to be registered teachers. Note the second paragraph in particular:

PRI PDC Teachers are those who the PRI recognise, through a vetting board, as determined and competent to teach a full 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate course that is based on, but not necessarily only constrained to, all the topics of Bill Mollison’s Designers’ Manual. Through sharing foundational permaculture principles and describing (and/or presenting) practical examples of these principles in action, the teacher will give students a healthy understanding of the interconnectedness of all elements in natural systems, and will give them the design tools to enable them to begin to work productively and sustainably with these systems in many climate zones and circumstances. The course will inspire and assist students to embark on their own life as permaculture system designers.

PRI PDC Teachers also commit to focussing on the design science, and not including subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements as topics. The reason these items are not included in the PDC curriculum is because they are “belief” based. Permaculture design education concerns itself with teaching good design based on strategies and techniques which are scientifically provable. A PRI PDC Teacher avoids creating barriers to permaculture uptake by directly associating permaculture with a particular set of beliefs and instead promotes an inclusive, simple, universal life ethic of returning surplus into nature’s systems to promote the care of our earth and its inhabitants, with the goal of creating a new world that lives in harmony with all of nature.

I hope some of the above helps share our position a little clearer. This is also all based on Bill Mollison’s work, and endorsed by him.

Kind regards


The response came back thus:

A lively permaculture/spiritual debate on your forum Craig, as it says Shamanism is not metaphysics, it is Science just as is Yoga & Astrology & even Meditation & Past-Life Regression, all these have undergone "scientific" scrutiny to the nth degree.

Religion may consist of beliefs, but Spirituality does not, the two are often confused. Spirituality is about Values, Integrity, Honesty, Impeccability, Super-Conscious Awareness & so forth. Just consider the following items.

The old paradigm features a fascinating array of contradictions:

Economics makes us poor.
Medicine makes us sick.
Free Trade makes us slaves.

And David Icke supplied more:

Doctors destroy Health. (It’s about Wealth, not Health).
Lawyers destroy Justice.
Universities destroy Knowledge.
Governments destroy Freedom.
Media destroys Information.
Religion destroys Spirituality.
Schools destroy Education.

These statements seem contradictory, but we can intuit truth in each of them. It would be a tragedy for Permaculture to reject Spirituality in this context, in fact much of the PDC manual is about values, & therefore Spirituality!

The PRI/PDC 2nd paragraph is therefore in error, lumping subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements together. Indigenous cultures are "highly spiritual" in recognising interconnectedness, does this mean Permaculture rejects such interconnectedness & what our indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years? No! I would say, it’s all compatible.

Permaculturists & other environmentally-associated groups together reject "spirituality" — often due to "religious" beliefs that deem one particular book as "absolute". Permaculture itself is in danger of becoming Religious!

Happy to assist a re-definition to avoid our animal, instead of spiritual nature, to keep running the earth. Best wishes….

Now, while I agree with some of the points raised in this email, it still clearly overlooks, and is at odds with, my main point — that mixing up one’s subjective beliefs into a permaculture course translates to erecting barriers to permaculture uptake, and also translates to undermining the work of other permaculture teachers. This particular individual is fully free to believe that Shamanism, astrology and past-life regression, etc., are fully scientifically proven, but I do not. Regardless of how convinced this individual might be, he or she cannot ‘prove’ them to me unless I ‘choose’ to believe them. Juxtaposed against this situation is the science of permaculture — where I can actually observe the design science in action and see the concrete results.

Permaculture is a science grounded in better management of the realities of cause and effect.

Permaculture does not, however, as reductionist scientists often do, dissect the whole until all you can see are disconnected details. Rather, the science of permaculture still respects ‘mystery’. As soil scientists, for example, we appreciate that we will never understand everything that goes on under our feet, and in our dissections we seek to retain holism — we recognise and respect that a system is more than merely the sum of its parts, and we seek to work in harmony with these observable systems. But we must understand where lies the border between respect and appreciation for, and management of, things we cannot understand, and emigrating into the land of if-you-believe-it-it’s-true.

I guess I just want to put this out there on the behalf of the many permaculturists I see who are getting tired of certain ‘spiritual’ influences undermining the urgent need to get people behind permaculture concepts. We need educators, governments, CEOs, scientists, agronomists, economists and your average Joe Citizen found in every nation and culture to study and help us develop functional permaculture systems for every climate and situation. We need all people to recognise they’re a part, or potentially so, of what could be a much greater whole, and to give them the tools to be so.

In short, I plead for all permaculture teachers to leave their subjective beliefs at the door when they begin to teach. If you must hold classes on your favoured way of looking at the unknown, then I would urge you to do so in a separate class held for just that purpose — and don’t call it ‘permaculture’. Whatever your beliefs, you must accept that not everyone shares them. To recognise this is being objective. To acknowledge it is being respectful. And, given where we stand in history, it is also expedient.

I’ll leave Bill Mollison to close:

As I have often been accused of lacking that set of credulity, mystification, modern myth and hogwash that passes today for New Age Spirituality, I cheerfully plead guilty. Unqualified belief, of any breed, disempowers any individuals by restricting their information.

Thus, permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. We permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations. — Travels in Dreams

P.S.: Comments on this post will be fully moderated. Comments that seek to identify the individual writing here will be deleted. Comments that write specifically about individuals or groups on one side of this discussion or the other will be deleted. Conversely, comments that are objectively discussing the points/issues/principles raised here are welcome and encouraged.

P.P.S.: Whew, there, I said it….