Does Labeling Permaculture as “Easy” Set Newbies Up For Failure?

Permaculture is a fairly new concept to me – and it’s not, at the same time. The idea of working with, rather than against, nature in order to create infinitely sustainable systems makes sense to me on a basic level, even though it is not a current practice of mine. My educational background and emotional mindset bring me squarely on the path of caring for the Earth, caring for its people, and returning any sort of a surplus created back to the Earth.

It’s been an eye-opening journey to delve into the Permaculture world and realize just how deep it flows. In so few words, it seems like an ideal and easy way to live. But is it really? If it is, how can that be simply conveyed to newbies, like myself? And if it isn’t, how can Permaculturists share their ideas without turning off those who may be quickly deterred?

Composting? I do that! Forest gardening? Well, I don’t weed my garden often, so I’m basically doing that. Rainwater harvesting? I can absolutely do that – and it seems so simple. People are making much of Permaculture look easy and doable, even for those of us who are new to learning about it. In a world where DIYs are readily accessible on Pinterest, many people desire to jump into trying new things with both feet.

We want to believe that the end product we see is one that we will be able to make ourselves, and that ours will look just like the one on the screen. But there is, of course, the dreaded “Pinterest fail” and some amount of dejection that goes with it. The realization that something is not as easy as it appears can be a turn off for many of us trying to learn a new skill. In order to gain a new audience, Permaculturists need to explain the tenants of their practice without turning away people who might not immediately succeed, or who might not understand the depths that this science can go to.

Permaculture isn’t always easy. It does require some level of involvement, to be decided by the user. As Damien Bohler explains in his The Essential Practical Nature of Permaculture, “Permaculture isn’t difficult and the skills necessary to implement Permaculture design can be learned by just about anyone, yet they are skills that need to be learned. Acknowledging that there is a need to learn, there is a need to find a practical starting point, that not everyone can drop everything and immerse their life into a full-time intensive practical training…”

green leek plants in growth at garden

Permaculture is not a DIY project that should be initiated without some initial research, but it should be accessible to anyone, as long as you’re willing to work towards a goal. There are books to read, experts in the field to learn from, and courses that can take you as far as a design certificate in permaculture. To an introductory member, the amount of work can seem daunting, especially when skilled permaculturists say it’s easy.

How involved does one have to be to be considered part of this movement? Does this culture ever worry about turning people away because of how intricate it can be? It seems that those people who are able to delve deep enough to create whole complex sustainable systems should, of course, be praised (and gawked at in wonder, if you’re me) – but it would also seem that any type of permaculture project that is undertaken with positive energy should be honored and applauded. Jonathon Engels, in his If that’s not permaculture, what is?, really speaks to this idea. “Consequently, not every practitioner will embark on the same quest as the next, but it’s the collective movement towards something truly better—for ourselves, others and the planet— that results in the sort of big changes needed.”

Perhaps my unpruned trees and small compost pile are meaningful. They are important because it shows that I’m attempting to be involved in permaculture. I’m working to learn more through reading and talking to others. It is these small accomplishments that can be made to represent a larger success for new permaculturists. Whether these actions were easy for me, or were incredibly difficult due to whatever circumstances, the importance comes in the effort and the intention.  

Encouragement is one of the most important messages to impart to those of us new to this philosophy. When a newbie tries to create a solar water pump system or a garden stream but fails, reassurance might make the difference between trying again and giving up entirely. Giving confidence to those of us who, effectively, don’t know what we’re doing, but know we want to try, might help us to push harder and seek out more effective methods.

It is also vital to continue to share information and training in order to get others involved. There will always be those who hope to bypass significant amounts of studying in hopes of finding a quick video that will show them what to do, but those people also deserve a fair shot at being a part of this movement. I think that’s why it’s so important to acknowledge the difficulty that encompasses much of permaculture, while also lending a supportive voice to those of us just starting. Permaculturists bring a large element of inspiration with them. Their drive and determination, when combined with understanding and support, can bring permaculture to a new generation of people hoping to solve problems as “easily” as possible.

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12 thoughts on “Does Labeling Permaculture as “Easy” Set Newbies Up For Failure?

  1. Nicely said. I think it’s important for the clergy to see things from the perspective of the layperson, because it helps expose gaps in their understanding of the needs and problems of ‘real people’ (no offense intended to the clergy; I consider myself a deacon at least, so I suffer from this problem too ;)

    One of the core principles of many permaculturists is “obtain a yield”, which I interpret to mean “just get something moving (and worry about perfection later)”, or simply “you gotta start someplace”. If someone makes one simple connection (e.g., putting a rain barrel right by their herb garden) that’s one more closed loop on the world, one inefficiency eliminated.

    On the one hand I don’t think small lifestyle changes are enough, but they do start the ball rolling in a steady, sustainable way. I imagine some people go through a ‘born again’ experience and have years of boundless energy for the cause… But for the rest of us, if we start out too ambitious we can either burn out from the effort of sustaining our system or get super discouraged by a couple of large failures. The risk there is that we may end up tossing the whole thing.

  2. Permaculture is a journey of learning and personal growth. We all start from the same beginning point, and the more effort we make to learn and practise, the further we progress. A good teacher and a supportive group both work wonders for learning how to do permaculture right.

    All things become easier with education and practise, permaculture is no different. Finding the time and motivation, as well as making the effort is easy, almost effortless when you are passionate about what you’re doing. It becomes an adventure, more like play, rather than work.

    We’ve all heard the idea that “you get out what you put in”, well that’s a good way to set realistic expectations. If we’re learning oil painting, we don’t expect to sell masterpieces for millions straight after completing an art course that teaches the fundamentals. Why should it be any different with permaculture design?

    Bad design is bad design, and that’s what people can expect if they don’t make the effort to learn, practise, and improve, but that shouldn’t be discouraging. It’s unrealistic to expect perfection or mastery when we first begin anything. If we’re just starting out and (think we’re) not making mistakes, then we’re not learning!

    Even when just beginning we can practise permaculture principles by working with each others, sharing our knowledge and skills, and supporting each other in a way that lets all involved realize their true potential. When we work together cooperatively, it always becomes easier, and we can achieve great things!

    Welcome to the permaculture journey! :)

  3. Internet life will always have the “FAIL” element.

    The only hard bit of Permaculture is de-clogging your mind of conventional techniques.

    It’s tricky, as Permaculture needs to set guidelines for it be accessed in the conventional way, but once accessed opens up a world only limited by the imagination.

    How ‘qualified’ does one have to be to assert oneself as a ‘Permaculturalist’? I would be interested to know what people think.

    As said above, I think if designs ‘return a yield’, if they make it easier for the user and enhance the natural world and educate those involved……….maybe it is permaculture?

  4. Learning about permaculture is somewhat like experiencing adolescence all over again. We might become sensitive about the things, we’re just learning to become responsible for.

    It doesn’t mean though, just because someone might speak from more experience with permaculture, it’s an automatic put down to those just starting.

    I remember seeing a TED talk with Mark Shepard, where he seemed to put down those who think permaculture is just about installing rain barrels. I say, “seemed to”, because from his perspective rejuvenating hundreds of acres, where he sees the industrial farming complex, sucking the life out of the land around him – the same complex which feeds people in cities with rain barrels. That hey, maybe there’s a bigger picture for people to consider about the design principles of permaculture?

    How are you supposed to sugar coat that reality, when you’re on the front-line of change and put your livelihood on the line to do it? Should we then avoid teaching how rain barrels are easy to install, and can capture water to be used on site? No. Rain barrels are very useful things and should be taught. People need to accept though, when speaking about permaculture, people are speaking from experience – and their intention is to add to the movement, based on that experience.

    There are some easy fixes using permaculture, and there are the more complex fixes. It’s an honest reflection of the movement to see these two approaches, working in tandem. It doesn’t automatically mean, they’re working against each other, just because you hear “but….there’s more to it…”

    People need to make peace with those diverse expressions within the movement. It’s what gives the movement it’s resilience. Everything which goes into it, is important. Whether you’re just starting out or an avid professional.

  5. Thats a really good piece that will hit home with many of us learning about permaculture. I would add, that does appear to be a constant pressure for newbies to attend a permaculture design course, as if that is the only way to gain a full understanding of permaculture, its not. There is more than enough general information out there now for people to get started, learn, make mistakes, try again, compare notes, learn some more and finaly get a bit better before succeeding. Hats off to all of us that are treading that permaculture inspired pathway.

  6. As Bill Mollison said after a 1982 – 72 PDC ” You now know more than anyone else in the world, except for other permaculturists, as to how to design a sustainable eco-system “. I still think that’s true. So knowledge is power and embarking on a permaculture implementation, you will do what you need and want to do with your “main frame” design. Follow your love for the Earth, nurture it and follow your intuition. Just Go For It.

  7. This is a difficult question to answer as everybody is different and every piece of land is unique. It can only be down to each individual to take responsibility for their own process and progress. But I think there’s a balance to be struck in the teaching. Stirring up wild amounts of enthusiasm and get-go by making it all look incredibly easy surely needs to be tempered with some caution? There WILL be mistakes made. There WILL be times when you feel utterly discouraged. You WILL need to think for yourself and adapt methods and solutions to your unique situation rather than just regurgitate what you’ve learned … but this is the bit where you really learn how to work with nature. Ultimately, it’s the most important step. Much more important than knowing how to construct a herb spiral. And it’s always a work in progress …

  8. I have had experience from both ends. Been a gardener for many years and learnt through observation and reading. Was pretty gungho about not needing to study permaculture (by the way there are free courses on line) but now, into my second permaculture course I can see how, if I had been patient and studied permaculture a bit more first off, there would have been a lot less hard slog and less failures. One can never know it all anyway because natural systems have a way of changing all the time and so there is a need for constant adjusting, revisiting, adjusting. Permaculture or not, there will still be backbreaking work to be done while fighting off natures little devils that love your produce as much as you do. Hang in there newbies – it’s all part of the journey!

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