I have been working with Permaculture, implementing designs and teaching it to others for about 5 years now. 5 years ago like many new to the concept I thought Permaculture was simply planting trees and bushes vs. annual crops, boy was I wrong.
I am an information sponge when a new topic of interest comes up. When I realized permaculture wasn’t just a word but an entire design science I went into overdrive. Someone sent me Geoff Lawton’s “Greening the Desert” and my mind opened to things I had never even considered before. After that, I soon discovered 3 great resources that stemmed from Bill Mollison they were…
- In Grave Danger of Failing Food (video featuring Bill Mollison)
- The Global Gardener Series (4 different documentaries by Bill Mollison)
- An Introduction to Permaculture By Bill Mollison (a 155 Page PDF free from Barking Frogs Permaculture)
I watched the videos and read the PDF at a speed I am sure Bill has never spoken at. I read it again, watched it again, etc. I bought copies of Permaculture One, Permaculture Two, The Permaculture Design Manual and any other videos and/or books that seemed worth having. As is typical I first became an expert in the intellectual sense on the concept and then began practical application along side of that effort.
In those 5 years I became a recognized name in the discipline. I have guest lectured at PDCs, I have presented at major events, taken part in great workshops as a student. Along the way I also took a PDC for which I got a certificate. The course was online as it was the only way I could get it done. Today I consider that certification worthless. Don’t get me wrong, the course taught me a lot, I learned a lot, but it was NOT a Permaculture Design Certification course in my view now.
Like I said I have pretty much invested in every single resource that is available in the Permaculture space. So when Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison released an entire PDC on DVD I bought it, in spite of a HUGE shipping cost from Australia. I sat down, put in the first DVD and even took notes (not something I am known for) and in the first 8 hours I learned the following…
- More about design science then I had from all the other material I had reviewed
- 5 times what I had in my entire online PDC course at least
- What Permaculture really is, “ethical design science and art coming together”
- That many so called PDC Courses in the US are simply not qualified to be called a true PDC
I know this will upset some people, but it is simply true. A design course should prepare you to go design systems from small to large in any climate on the planet. A person that completed such a course should be able to look at the shape of land forms and know the climate they are in from that alone. They should understand earth works, swales, sills, guilds and more. Sadly many don’t.
Of course Geoff Lawton has now released an online PDC but not everyone will be able to take it. For some the cost is too high, for others the timing isn’t right and they will only take so many students to make sure that the quality of education is sufficient. Not to mention someone has to review the final published projects of each student seeking certification.
Additionally for Permaculture to keep growing we need it to be profitable and there are many outstanding teachers out there. Two that spring to mind are Ben Falk who is actually moving more to doing specific hands on workshops vs. PDCs which I find very cool, I think there is a huge demand for this. The other that jumps to mind is Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture. I know for a fact Bill’s curriculum was based on direct guidance from the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia.
There are a few facts about the term Permaculture and the history of the movement. The first is the word was coined by Bill Mollison who co wrote Permaculture One with David Holmgren. After that is was Bill who developed the PDC curriculum and began teaching and evolving it. This went on pretty much for about 20 years and along Bill’s side for almost all of that time was Geoff Lawton. Together these two men made Permaculture into a global concept, they created the brand, taught thousands of students and evolved the concept based on science and ethics.
To me if you are going to say you are a “Certified Permaculture Designer” it certainly isn’t necessary to be taught by one of these two men, though it is great to do so if you can. What you should do though is go though the material and concepts that actually were created by the industries founder, Bill Mollison. Again this is based on the science of design, the prime directive and three core ethics. There are two problems with many courses that claim to be PDCs in my view. One is what they don’t include and the other is what they do include, both are major hurtles holding Permaculture back in my view.
Problems With What Isn’t Included
This one is pretty easy, here are some questions I would ask any company or individual who wanted to sell me a PDC course, if they can answer them all sufficiently, I think you are good to go.
- Can you tell me what a sill is and how it functions?
- Can you explain the basic difference between sector and zone analysis?
- Will your course teach me about landscape profiles?
- Will your course teach me to design systems in any climate or landscape?
- What makes your PDC valid, did you receive guidance from the PRI of Australia flat out would Bill Mollison consider a certificate from your course valid?
Bluntly, before I would spend my money on a Permaculture Design Course I would want a satisfactory answer to all those questions, with one consideration. That consideration is a question to myself, “does certification matter to me, is that something I really want as a credential?”.
Many of these courses are actually exceptional, you learn incredible things, lots about design and they can help you a great deal in many ways. However, if they are not based on the core curriculum of Permaculture’s founder, they are not in my view a Design Certification. I don’t think most of these schools are doing this for negative purposes, I just think they feel qualified to teach and are selling what they feel people want. Such schools would do best to simply start offering workshops based on regional design, specific techniques, etc. rather then make their own version of a PDC . Either that or seek guidance from the PRI to make sure the curriculum is complete. Either would be fine in my book.
Problems With What Is Included
This is a bigger problem to me. Most of the courses with this issue have the what isn’t included problem as well, but these are much worse when the missing info is back filled with an agenda. Being a very nature based system Permaculture attracts what many would call modern day hippies and/or people into a lot of “airy fairy stuff”. Generally a lot of politics get added in when you start down that path. Before I continue I want to provide a quote from Permaculture’s founder, Bill Mollison it is…
“So it’s [permaculture] a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.”
I want to point out here that the above quote isn’t my view it is the view of Permaculture’s founder, the man whom we all must thank for the existence of the Permaculture movement as a whole. You can read the interview that quote comes from here.
Here are some examples of things that I know have actually been stated in so called Permaculture Design Courses, none of which I feel have any place in a PDC
- If you own a gun you are not a real permaculturist
- If you don’t use your urine for fertilizer you are not a permaculturist
- You must be off grid 100% or you are not a permaculturist
- If you are a republican you are not a permaculturist
- If you don’t believe in global warming based on CO2 you are not a permaculturist
- If you use heavy equipment you are not a permaculturist
- Every permaculture student should be a vegetarian
- All surplus should be redistributed (a bastardization of the third ethic)
- You can’t have an SUV and practice permaculture
- Permaculture is all or nothing
That is just the start. There are PDCs which require the students to camp out, they are not permitted to get a hotel at their own expense as it is considered wasteful on fuel. Some have a lot of hippy like campfire time with bare feet, singing, chanting etc. That I actually have no problem with as long as it is something additional for those that want to do it and not part of the curriculum and required. In some instances it has been part of the core course.
In a PDC if you are discussing energy it should be the potential or kinetic energy of actual scientific forces of nature. Not the “energy of the goddess spirit of Mother Earth”. I again have no problem with people who have this spiritual view. I have no problem with people that gain a Permaculture education and then practice it from this view. That is fine, we all practice our professions in a specific angle based on our personal spiritually and world view. It just isn’t something that belongs in the educational components of something that is supposed to be based on design science. Frankly a PDC should not be used to indoctrinate others with any individual’s political or spiritual views. It should be all about what works and how and why to do it.
Consider taking a course in architecture at a university. Now if you talk to students in that course you will find some are Christian, some atheists, some die hard democrats and some die hard republicans and others might be politically agnostic. The teacher too will have a specific geo political world view. Some may come though in his teaching but basically he is going to teach his students to design a building.
Along with other training those students will then design buildings and much of who and what they are will go into said designs, heck deeply religious students might specialize in designing churches. Yet the education will be about structure, engineering, foundations, etc. In other words what works, what makes a building safe, useable, etc. That teacher shouldn’t be teaching his students that “the mystical energy of Mother Earth can be channeled though the arches of the building”, such has little place in the world of academia in a architectural course. If you want such things take a course on world religion or metaphysics.
The approach of injecting politics and spiritually into a PDC is extremely damaging to the movement. The reality is taking a PDC takes time and money. Many people with the money and willing to sacrifice the time are doing so because they have seen the results of permaculture and want to be better able to reproduce them. Many also want to make permaculture part of a business in the realm of sustainable landscaping as part of an existing business. Some want to go into full on consulting. Some want to go into teaching workshops and courses of their own.
Such people want to know what works, how it works, why it works and how to do it. They are generally not interested in dancing in mud, chanting mantras or being told they are evil for having their own political opinions. In fact I have spoken to a lot of people that took PDCs who were very turned off of permaculture because they became convinced that this was the heart of what permaculture really is. Geoff has confirmed that he has had the same experience in speaking with thousands of people around the world who have been though similar so called PDCs.
Conversely when a person has taken a true PDC based on the core curriculum of the movement’s founder the response is almost always positive. They are on fire with a desire to implement solutions and frankly capable of doing it. They become open to how awesome nature’s systems are, they start designing highway medians in their head during rush hour and begin to see every problem as a solution.
These concepts are universal. Once explained no republican with an open mind has ever objected to the concepts of care of the earth, care of people and return of surplus nor has any democrat, libertarian, etc. whom I have explained them to. I have never shown the results of a well executed permaculture project to anyone that didn’t think it was an amazing thing. Almost every human on the planet I show the results side of things to wants at least a little piece of it in their lives.
Permaculture could be the most popular movement on our planet if some us can get out of our own way. I am not saying you should change your political view or your spiritual view if you are in this camp, just that you should let others be free to have their own views on this stuff. I am also stating that we should not drag divisional baggage into a universally appealing movement.
Some people feel no one should own a SUV and all homes should have solar panels. Well, great, get a compact car or a horse for all I care, shut off the grid and put up your panels. Don’t however attack the guy with a FJ Cruiser, a big AC System on his house who also happens to spend a lot of money and time to transform his entire property into a urban food forest. His efforts are just as valuable as many who are far more “green” in the totality of their lives.
Frankly his contribution might be better. Should his backyard become an example to many other upper middle class in his neighborhood and they emulate him. Sure they may drive gas guzzlers and watch 70 inch TVs but hell isn’t that their choice to make? Are we not all better off to have 10,000 such people plant their grass lawns to beneficial plantings? Isn’t it better that 10,000 such families develop 10,000 distributed local food systems even if they continue to do other things you personally consider wasteful.
Simply put once you start down the permaculture path your life becomes more sustainable and your ecological foot print becomes softer. Each of us chooses exactly how far we walk such a path. Some will live in an off grid earthship, grow 70% of our own food and buy the other 30% from only local sources. Others will live a 100% modern style life but transform our landscapes into something productive, beautiful and sustainable. Most of us are like myself, we are somewhere in the middle. We reduce our waste, do as much as we can to be self sufficient and sustainable and slowly implement as much design as we can afford into our lives.
There is a place for all such people in Permaculture. Frankly the die hards among us need a lot of the people on the “permaculture edge” if we want to build a life and an income based on permaculture principles. Rather then putting down the upper middle class guy with a large SUV living in the suburbs, qualified designers should be selling that guy a design. If he wants solar panels great, but if he just wants an edible landscape design then design it for him, implement it and bill him for it. I mean I drive a truck, it was expensive but I don’t know how to build one nor do I want a job doing so. I don’t really care how to build a truck. I am also not about to study automotive engineering before I buy a vehicle. I have a house, I bought it, I don’t want to become a carpenter.
We as designers should be selling design to anyone that will buy it and implement it. If they want an end to end system fine, but if they only want 30% that is fine too. Just get them on the path and don’t be afraid to make a profit along the way. This all starts with good design and good design comes from fully qualified designers.
Don’t take this the wrong way. Let’s say you have a teacher in your area that has studied permaculture deeply. Say this person never took a real PDC but developed a course specific to your region. That course might be amazing and might be worth spending time and money on. Honestly for some it might do more for them then a PDC, I really mean that. But a Design Course meant to teach global principles of design and a regional course on specific techniques are two different things.
Likewise if you want to do a two week Permaculture event, dance around the fire, pray to the Earth Spirit, take mud baths, burn incense, discuss politics from your view or what have you knock yourself out. When I say we have room for everyone, I mean it. Just call it what it is, a Spiritual Retreat with a Permaculture Component. Tell people where you are coming from and what to expect and enjoy the hell out of yourself but don’t claim that it is a PDC because it isn’t.
In the end people make their own choices about their own businesses and the market will judge based on results. This article isn’t to be a seminal work on what makes one qualified to teach a PDC or not. I just want to make people on all sides of this issue think a bit deeper about it. Additionally I wanted to provide my audience with my view on how to select a permaculture course or teacher. Again many courses are really wonderful, saying something isn’t a PDC isn’t a put down, it is just a fact based on the core realities and components of permacutlure design as founded by Bill Mollison.