How I Changed My Family To Be “Green” and Value Permaculture

Inspirator and Teacher Kenton Zerbin, from the Permaculture Research Institute of Barbados (PRIB), offers wisdom for engaging family and friends with Permaculture.

Is this what you look like to your family and friends?

We all know the hardest people to change are family. It’s like they don’t take us seriously, or that everything we do needs to be taken with a Costco container of salt instead of “a grain of salt.”

How do we get them to value the environment, to understand our changed values and how important they are, not just to us, but to everything?

Well, here is the single most important tip I can give you: Start where the learner is at.

The biggest mistake you can make is to take all the exciting awesomeness that Permaculture is and shake it off on to everyone around you like water from a wet dog. We Permaculture teachers call this “wet dog syndrome”, and it happens every time someone takes a PDC.


You learn what a swale is or how everything is actually the manifestation of energy in patterns. Bubbling with your newfound understanding of the world and how to act in it, you go home and say:

{Insert person’s name here} This course is so amazing! You have to take it! Today I learned that everything is energy and that it is all pattern and that we can learn to see it and that by seeing it we can learn from it and that by learning from it we can design systems that are awesome. Isn’t that amazing?!

Congrats… you just became a raving hippy. In the minds of your family you’ve just subtracted 10 points from anything that subsequently comes out your mouth if it is Permaculture related. They will not take you seriously.

So again… start where the learner is at.

Here is how I changed my family:

1) My parents recycled, so they already valued the idea of ‘re-use’ and could understand the idea of closed-loop systems. That is where they were at. I didn’t propose building a humanure toilet, a straw bale house or a food forest. I proposed recycling one more thing out of the waste stream coming from their house. That’s all! How did I make it easy for them? I gave them a user-friendly gimmicky plastic composting bin and a pretty little metal bucket to put on their counter.

Compost bucket

Plastic composter

What was key about that:

Now they want to know how to keep their compost functioning & healthy… soil education! This is a branching point for growing plants and food and for educating about water in soils!

2) My parents like to throw pizza parties. So they already value community and food. They also like to have those get-togethers outside and use that precious patio. That is where they were at. I didn’t propose moving to an eco-village, restocking the entire pantry with certified organic food or propose having a forage-and-campfire cook party (wouldn’t that be an awesome cook party?!). So what did I propose? I proposed a cob oven in their backyard, right next to their patio for quick pizza cooking. Less time in the kitchen, more time outside partying! Not a bad proposal, eh? It helped that I also threw out facts like “Your first pizza cooks in 60 seconds!” How did I make it easy for them? I had it hosted as a workshop so all my parents had to do was pay for the materials and provide lunch to the 8 people who paid for the instructor to workshop it.

Cob oven

What was key about that:

It got people enjoying food together outside, cooking naturally and efficiently! This builds community and awareness in both the building and the using! And all those people are now talking with my parents about sustainable building techniques like cob and they are also asking about that composter over there….

3) So now my parents have a lot of kicking rich soil (they have been composting for three years and not really applying it anywhere) and they enjoy cooking food outside…. So, they start to wonder what they should use all that compost for and if they could use it to grow some of their pizza ingredients…. This is what I mean by start where the learner is at! Growing food is critical to educating people today! At their request, I now built them raised beds to go right next to their cob pizza oven. I educate them on the design aspects of wind and solar for influencing the best place to put those growing beds.

I also get to talk further — about what makes healthy soil, including non-chlorinated town water. So now we are looking at rainwater harvesting solutions. Oh, and did I mention they now thought it would be great to have a fruit tree or two? Well, I turned that idea into a fruit tree guild just by talking about the soil needs of those trees.

So in three simple steps over three years my parents are now the proud owners of a composting system, a cob oven, four large growing beds and are looking forward to a mini food forest in their backyard.

So my key advice: Always start where the learner is at whether it’s family, friend, or one of my PDC students. Good luck Permies!