Permaculture and Philosophy
We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy. — Bill Mollison
The place of philosophy in Permaculture has always been a contentious subject and for very good reasons. The very identity and credibility of the design system of permaculture rests on its sound scientific underpinnings and foundations.
Through the definition of strict boundaries of what can and cannot be added to the body of the permaculture syllabus, it has managed to retain its intended focus, and therefore its effectiveness as a scientific design discipline.
If the relationship and connection of permaculture to philosophy is not clearly understood, we run the very real risk of destroying the integrity of the discipline of permaculture, by making inappropriate additions in the misguided endeavour to ‘make it all things to all people’.
So, the best way to tackle any contention about this subject is to examine the nature of permaculture itself as well as the nature of what we loosely define as philosophy, and the relationship between them. And that’s precisely what we’ll do!
The Nature of Permaculture
Permaculture is an applied science, as its focus is on the practical application of scientific knowledge to achieve certain aims. It does not aim to gather information for the purpose of amassing knowledge alone.
It is also an empirical science, deriving information through observation or experience of the natural world. The strong emphasis of the importance of observation as a tool in permaculture design should confirm clearly that this is the case.
The opposite of an empirical science is a theoretical science, which deals with theories, speculation and conjecture. So, we can see that permaculture is clearly not a theoretical discipline, but one grounded in practicality. It is also in essence pragmatic, and applicable to everyday life.
So far we have examined how permaculture resembles other sciences, but to make a complete and thorough analysis, we also need to check if it differs in any way.
Permaculture differs from many other sciences in that it is holistic, and not reductionist. It doesn’t reduce the world to a set of abstract and ultimately meaningless mathematical equations, which are nothing more than human mental abstractions. Instead, it describes the connections and relationships between natural systems, the countless living organisms on this planet, and the planet itself.
What makes Permaculture unique is that it has at its very core a set of three ethical principles:
- Care of the Earth
- Care of people
- Return of surplus to the Earth and people (also called “Fair Share”)
Now, ethical principles are not normally part of any science — they normally reside in the domains of philosophy and religion. So, permaculture is really unique in that it is an applied science with a philosophical branch grafted to it, which provides it with a set of ethics.
These ethics are in my opinion a valuable and necessary addition, because science is normally seen as an amoral discipline in our modern society — it inherently lacks ethical guidelines, and is not concerned with them.
In the scientific world, people such as bioethicists pick up the loose ends and deal with moral and ethical concerns, but these people are not scientists, but philosophers in both function and training. The state of our present world is living proof of where amoral science coupled with profit-driven technology and economics has taken us, and the concerns here should be evident….
Now, before anyone jumps the gun at my statement that “permaculture has a branch of philosophy grafted to it in the form of a set ethical principles”, let me further elaborate on nature of these ethical principles.
Permaculture’s Ethical Principles
Let me state at the outset of this discussion that:
- The act of including ethical principles in permaculture is totally consistent with the nature of permaculture, and
- The nature of the ethical principles themselves is congruent with the underlying purpose of permaculture
As a basic definition, permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.
By this very definition, this system necessitates that our conduct is focussed on the good of the planet, nature and the people. It cannot work otherwise.
In permaculture, we are dealing with scientifically definable and measurable systems here — biological ecosystems and human communities. What is beneficial or detrimental to either of these systems is not a subjective matter bound in the realms of personal opinion and conjecture. What is good or bad for living systems is objective scientific fact that can be observed, measured and the results readily reproduced. It is not idle philosophy abstracted from reality and relegated to the towers of academia. Neither does it depend on any metaphysical explanation, religious, spiritual or otherwise.
One point that must made be clear here is how the ethics of permaculture differ from other ethical systems. The ethical principles of permaculture are what I would describe as a ‘practical philosophy’ — one based on science and observation rather than theory, doctrine or belief.
So, the inclusion of an ethical system does not detract from the science; as it is based on solid science, it ensures that the science is applied only as intended, and achieves the intended ethical aims.
Having covered the nature of permaculture and its ethical system, it’s now time to look at the nature of ‘philosophies’, and the reasons why they are of concern to permaculture in certain contexts.
Philosophy and the Correct Sequence of Things – The Cart goes After the Horse…
To quote Bill Mollison, “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”.
The wisdom contained in this quote may not be immediately apparent to a person with little life experience working with nature. To those that do have this experience, they can from their own experience immediately recognize that Bill Mollison has ‘been there’ and knew what he was talking about when he uttered this quote.
Unless you ‘get it’, because you have ‘walked the path’, then it’s all academic and the implications of this quote may not be immediately apparent, but I’ll do my best to explain.
By practicing permaculture and by that I mean really practicing it, applying it, doing something useful with it, living it, certain changes take place in your perspective and outlook.
Through spending time working with nature in a nurturing, caring way — tending to plants, trees and wildlife — you develop a connection with it. When you spend time caring for nature, year after year through the seasons, watching the cycles of birth, growth, decline and death of all forms of life, you become attuned to its cycles. Through spending time and effort interacting with nature as an integral part of it, in the same way as all other living things do, as a peer and not a master, you develop a communion with nature — a sense of oneness with it. Through all this experience, you then finally truly appreciate all life and its worth, its sanctity, and how nature as a whole is truly sacred.
Your personal philosophy then will arise from your deep experience of earth stewardship and communion, not beforehand!
If it comes beforehand, it’s just a baseless academic mental construct without any foundation (and most likely, no real merit either). If it comes after the acquisition of knowledge, which is then consolidated by experience, then it is what is called wisdom. This is indelibly etched in the psyche because it has been truly ‘understood’. It has, in a sense, been earned, and not just memorised.
In my mind this is what Bill Mollison meant, and I have realised this through my own personal experience, not through theorizing or from memorising some random fact presented in a course or textbook.
Hence, through gardening in a permaculture sense, and the activities associated with it — caring for the Earth (and all living organisms that make up the planet’s ecosystems), caring for the people, and sharing our surplus — we create the right conditions for a philosophy, or even a spirituality to arise of its own accord, one that has a foundation in reality based upon experience, wisdom and understanding.
If we indulge in philosophising without a connection to life, without ‘walking the walk’, then we’re only ‘talking the talk’, we’re just amusing ourselves with our own thought processes disconnected from the real world, and we are just subscribing to a belief system (usually someone else’s).
One sentiment frequently echoed around certain permaculture circles is that ‘something is missing from permaculture, they should teach about spirituality…’
Why should people think this? It’s often heard after the conclusion of a 72-hour intensive Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course, which people almost unanimously describe as ‘life-changing’. I have looked into the phenomenon, and this is my theory for why this happens.
The PDC covers a lot of ground, but what it does even more profoundly is explore in depth our place in the world, the natural order of the planet, and our proper place in it.
Humanity has existed in close connection with nature for the majority of its 200,000 year existence as the species Homo sapiens (modern man). Our connection to nature is hard-wired into us. Our modern society has disconnected us from our source, our roots, and from the web of life that interconnects all life on planet Earth.
Deep down we all feel something is not right. In modern society we have a deep discontent gnawing away at us from the very depth of our core. We deeply thirst for that reconnection to life itself. Since the pull to our true natures is buried so deeply below so much pointless distractions and mental activities, we become unconscious of our deepest yearnings.
In a modern society where people are isolated, alienated, marginalised, and barely exist in lives devoid of meaning, they survive by trying to feed their base desires, their most primal urges. Advertising tells us what will make us happy, unbridled consumption! – buy this and that and you’ll be complete! But we never are, and we find that the bottomless pit of insatiable desires within us is never filled.
We try to ignore it all by pursuing distractions and meaningless activities to keep our mind occupied (that we often label as ‘entertainment’) so we can’t notice how dissatisfied we really are. Unfortunately, we can’t stay in perpetual motion indefinitely, and in the moments where we have stillness, isolation or boredom, when the distractions cease, all the discontent surfaces to the top of our conscious minds and haunts us like a demon released from the depths of hell.
The PDC seems to ‘reconnect’ us to what I’d best describe as our genetic memory of our connection with nature, creating a profound experience, which is further enhanced by the realisation of how much on the wrong track our society is when we can truly see nature’s real order.
Having this perspective shift and a sense of reconnection to nature and a recognition of our proper place in the system leaves a strong impression that we’re connected to something bigger than us, and that something is also missing.
Strangely enough, these are the very elements that drive us on our inner personal journeys, which urge us to construct our personal philosophies to explain who we are and our place in the world, through which we derive our own personal meaning. These philosophies can extend into spirituality — the quest for connection and communion with something beyond and greater than our sense of self, and the realisation of meaning and purpose that accompanies this process.
So, training in permaculture can ignite one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose in life! Yes, it can indeed. And this is precisely where the confusion begins. Permaculture is a design framework, but the practitioner must provide the design techniques, which are the ‘tools’. If you wish to design a permaculture garden, permaculture will give you the framework to design energy efficient, sustainable gardens that model nature’s systems, but it will not teach you horticulture. If you wish to design energy efficient houses, you have to teach yourself architecture, and then apply your architectural skills within a permaculture design framework. The key is that you must supply the content!
Similarly, permaculture might act as a primer to a personal philosophical or spiritual quest or journey, but it doesn’t supply the philosophy or spirituality. This is your responsibility. This you must find yourself. Once again, you must supply the content!
The Source of the Problem
Through a misunderstanding of the ‘inner need’ that arises through the perspective shift in permaculture study, some teachers have decided to do something about the feeling that ‘something is missing’ by blending their own personal spiritual belief systems into their permaculture courses.
The second mistake some teachers make is to assume that because permaculture includes a life-affirming ethical system that makes it compatible with other life-affirming philosophies, spiritual systems and religions, then it is fine to add these to their permaculture courses.
And this is, my friends, is where the confusion begins….
Just because the system of permaculture is compatible with possibly all positive belief systems does not mean they can be grafted onto it! It will only damage permaculture as a discipline if this is attempted.
Why you may ask?
Simply because permaculture, being a science, is truly universal, but spiritual or philosophical beliefs are not.
Permaculture is meant to appeal to a wide audience, and as a discipline it can be practiced all people regardless of whether they are an atheist, agnostic, theist or whether they subscribe to this philosophy or that. If we include elements that are not universally agreed upon (because they are not scientific, and therefore cannot be proven with science), we run the risk of excluding a large portion of the general population who may hold different personal beliefs. If the intention is to bring permaculture to a wider audience, then excluding a portion of the populace would run counter to this aim.
Furthermore, just because people hold spiritual beliefs does not necessarily mean they will all agree with each other. There is no guarantee that a permaculture teacher who espouses their own personal spiritual beliefs in a permaculture course will not alienate people with different spiritual beliefs either.
With the inclusion of a very narrow set of spiritual beliefs, permaculture as a discipline will, as a consequence, become marginalised to a very narrow subset of the total population — to only those people who are interested in both permaculture and that specific spiritual belief. It is in effect a subgroup of a subgroup of the total population. This is hardly the way to gain widespread acceptance for such a valuable system as permaculture!
One objection often raised in this respect is the discussion of indigenous spirituality in permaculture texts and the apparent reverence for them.
The explanation for this is quite simple, and ties in with the point made earlier about spirituality/philosophy arising from living a life in harmonious connection with nature.
These indigenous spiritualties are the result of people’s close connection, communion with, and reverence for nature and all life. They have lived as part of nature for millennia, and understood their place in it — their spirituality arose from there. The connection was never lost. They didn’t dream up their spiritually in the lofty towers of academia in a university somewhere, it arose from living a life in harmony with nature, as an integral part of it.
As permaculture tells us, the seeds of the solution can be found within every problem, and the problem of philosophy in permaculture is no different.
Permaculture’s compatibility with a wide range of belief systems means that the design system can have universal appeal, regardless of individual differences. As a consequence, permaculture can be taught in various communities with the effect of supporting their philosophical, spiritual or religious values, ethics and principles.
Permaculture is meant to co-exist alongside these compatible systems, interconnected to them in the same way that all living things are interconnected in the web of life. In the same way that different organisms can co-exist in a supportive, symbiotic relationship with each other without changing their unique genetic make-up, so too can permaculture co-exist in a supportive manner without changing its unique nature or composition.
If a teacher is delivering a permaculture design course, then they should deliver it as it is, retaining its original character and nature. By running a permaculture course, a teacher is acting as a representative of the wider permaculture community and is promoting the universal system of permaculture, which is the same as permaculture being taught by other teachers, to their students right around world.
Now, if a permaculture teacher wishes to teach metaphysical courses which they believe are compatible with permaculture, then they are promoting something unique and personal which represents no-one else but themselves, and their own beliefs. It would be a gross misrepresentation of the permaculture community to title such a course with the word ‘permaculture’, for it projects to the world that “this is permaculture”, which is simply not the case!
I believe that the permaculture course should be taught strictly as a permaculture course out of respect and obligation to the greater permaculture community.
A metaphysical course should be represented as the teacher’s own personal system, or their version of a larger system, whichever it may be, without any possibility of confusion that it is associated in any way with permaculture.
If the point isn’t quite clear, let me illustrate with a clear example. If I sign up for a permaculture course, I would want to learn permaculture. I would not necessarily want to have someone else’s spiritual belief shoved down my throat, as part of a captive audience of a course that is there to learn permaculture. If I have my own spiritual beliefs, or if I don’t have any, I would want that respected, without being forced to be subjected someone else’s personal beliefs when I’m not there for that reason.
In summary, we maintain the integrity of permaculture and teach it in its original form, for the following reasons:
- Out of mutual respect for students’ own personal beliefs.
- To be more open and inclusive to people of different belief systems in order to attract a wider audience.
- To respect the aims and intentions of the founders of the system of permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and to respect the hard work of countless teachers that have dedicated themselves to support and carry on the founders’ work.
And on that last point, if we really are trying to be spiritual, then I think that respect for our ‘elders’ is a fairly universal concept or value in most spiritual, religious and philosophical systems if I’m not mistaken!
We can conclude that due to permaculture’s unique nature as an applied science with its own scientifically validated ethical system, it can harmoniously co-exist with possibly all life-affirming philosophical, religious and spiritual systems in a supportive way, without changing them or needing to be changed itself.
Permaculture can help us identify our need for an ethical personal philosophy or the need to pursue a spiritual path, but it cannot supply them, nor is it obliged to as a scientific design discipline, as such a purpose is well beyond its scope. We must find our personal philosophy or our spiritual path ourselves. That is our responsibility.
Philosophy and spirituality, which are deeply personal by nature, are ultimately not something that we need to graft onto permaculture, which is universal by nature. By living harmoniously with nature and our fellow men (and women!) in an ethical way, we lay the foundations for both a deeper philosophical understanding of life and for a spiritual life.
It is through ethical, life-affirming action, that we will find our own personal philosophy or spirituality, and not by learning about someone else’s own personal version in a sustainable design course. Put that way, it hardly seems like the place for it….
So, if you want spirituality or philosophy to go along with your permaculture training, my advice is to go out there, practice what you’ve learned, put it into action and do some good in this world. Make an effort to make the world a better place for the good of all, and I guarantee that you will be rewarded with your own personal philosophy or spirituality, and possibly a better world too!
Title photo: Plato, the greatest western philosopher of all time, born 428 or 427 B.C.E. in Athens, Greece, and died in 347 B.C.E. He taught in a garden, or sacred grove, dedicated to the God Academus, so it was known as “The Academy”.