I recently took part in a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) – 15 days of classes and hands-on activities covering everything from ecology to passata-making, spread over the first half of this year.
I’d been told that doing a PDC makes you see the world differently. I must admit that I didn’t find this to be true. (I suspect I had that experience when I read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things when studying human-computer interaction at university.) However, the PDC did make me see permaculture differently.
I’ve had an odd relationship with permaculture since I first learned about it in the mid 1990s. I’ve felt inspired by the vision of a sustainable or even regenerative way of living, challenged by the breadth of skills and knowledge that permaculture encompasses, and at the same time a little lost and left out by the culture of permaculture and the ways it’s communicated and taught.
The PDC seems to be key. Permaculturists ask each other “Where did you do your PDC?” as a form of introduction, and membership in Permaculture Australia and attendance at their annual convergence is limited to those who’ve done the course. Yet the course is non-accredited, and (from what I hear) varies widely from place to place. When I looked at what was covered in PDCs, I wondered what about it made it worth spending a thousand dollars or more, when I could learn the same things from books?
“It’s a transformative experience,” people said. “You’ll learn to see the world with new eyes.” And, “you can learn individual techniques by yourself or in short courses, but only a PDC helps you understand the design of complex systems.”
I was skeptical. As a software developer for many years, design of complex systems was my bread and butter. I’d read Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designers Manual” cover to cover, and I followed a number of permaculture designers online. I felt like I had a good handle on the specific techniques used: zone and sector analysis, for instance, seemed perfectly straightforward.
From time to time I encountered a formalised process like SADIM, and noted that it roughly followed the traditional “Waterfall” steps used to build software: analyse customer needs and context, develop a high level design, break it down into smaller parts, figure out how they interact with each other, implement, test, then maintain it. They’d taught us this in the earliest days of my software engineering classes in the early 90s, so I didn’t find it too earth-shattering, and I imagine people from other design professions – architecture, or industrial design, for instance – might feel similarly. I suppose if you didn’t work in any of those fields it might be all new to you.
Of course, I never actually used the formal permaculture design processes I was reading about, because I was hopping from one rental property to another in short-term leases of a year or two at a time, working with constrained budgets and timeframes, and sometimes didn’t have a garden at all. But I understood them as a sort of idealised model of how, in theory, it should work.
Come to think of it, that sounded hauntingly familiar. In the software world the Waterfall software design model was more often honoured in its breach than its observance, and software engineers were pretty critical of its failure to work in the fast-moving, resource-constrained world of Internet-era software development by the time I started really engaging in software projects in the late 90s.
I wondered where the permaculture conversations were that paralleled those I had with other software developers, often in the bar late at night during a conference, which I’d probably call “process introspection”:
What went wrong with this project? Does that happen a lot? How can we avoid it next time?
How long should you spend analysing requirements before you start coding? How do you even know, with certainty, what your requirements are?
What do you do if something changes part way through your implementation?
How much documentation do you really need?
How do you test ideas? When should you throw your first try away and start over?
How do you keep track of all the things you want to do, and figure out what order to do them in?
How do we work as teams?
How do we communicate what we learned to the wider software community?
These were the sort of questions that, in software engineering, led to the Agile movement (which I became involved in around 2001) and I wondered whether there were any other permaculturists who also knew about Agile, had noticed the similarities, and were trying to bring the two together. I occasionally raised the idea when I came across a software developer who was interested in permaculture, or vice versa, but for the most part I got blank looks. Nobody seemed to be talking about this stuff, even though Agile was massively influential and widespread by the late 2000s.
So, I had doubts about how design was taught on a PDC, but I thought I would nevertheless take the course if I ever bought a big block of land in the country. It would be a good opportunity to go through the permaculture design process (however dissimilar to my preferred software process), in a structured environment with support and mentoring. And if I was planning to develop the land with anyone else, we could do the course together, which would help get us on the same page.
That’s not how it turned out at all. Instead, I was renting month-to-month on a small block in urban Ballarat when I was offered a place on a local PDC in exchange for some work I’d done. The course was held over 6 months, roughly one weekend a month, at a local small permaculture farm.
Of the 24 people originally enrolled, 22 owned their own land, most had small farms or rural lifestyle blocks, and many had recently purchased them. A handful of us lived in urban and suburban areas, and only myself and one other were renters.
It’s weird being a renter on a landowner-focused PDC. There were entire days where nothing applied to me, and at times I wondered what I was doing there at all. Bushfire preparedness, Yeomans’ keyline design, forestry, livestock, wood fired hot water systems, and passive solar straw bale homes (just to name a few) are all interesting but largely irrelevant to my life at this stage. At the same time, there were areas where I got excited and wanted to dive deeper: energy accounting, patterns, design thinking, aesthetics, and open source software for community governance were some of the areas I wished we could have talked more about. I’m someone who learns by tossing ideas around, and I struggled with the fact that my desire to (say) dive deep into pattern languages didn’t match what other people were there for.
On a few occasions I came home from a day of PDC and wound up writing up long pages of notes on things I wish we’d been able to explore in more depth. And one day, in the middle of the course, I came home and googled “agile permaculture” and finally, FINALLY found that people were talking about it! Dan Palmer’s blog, Making Permaculture Stronger, had been one of my favourite “thinky” permaculture blogs for some time, and he’d started an inquiry into what, in my software lingo, I call “Waterfall vs Agile” but he is starting to call “fabricating vs generating“.
This came along just as our PDC was teaching Dave Jacke’s design process (as laid out in Edible Forest Gardens), in a format very similar to the Waterfall software process, so the timing couldn’t have been better. I posted a bunch of comments on Dan’s blog, and emailed him a few screeds about topics like agile software toolchains, which I might one day turn into something. Later, I wound up taking part in some face-to-face discussions, and Dan even interviewed me about agile software development for his podcast.
And that, I think, is where I’m leading with this blog post. If most people come out of a PDC with a new way of seeing the world, what I’ve come out with is a new relationship to permaculture-the-movement, in which I feel more empowered to take part in the intellectual process of it all. Before my course, I felt like I was on the outside – a renter, no land, no PDC – and that this made me unqualified to even really call myself a permaculturist, let alone have deep opinions on permaculture topics. Post PDC, I’m confident enough to say: “It shouldn’t be this way.”
We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops (expensive and often inaccessible hoops, at that) to take a full and active part in the movement. Those on the margins of permaculture – whether poor and landless, specialists in other fields who are newer to permaculture, or those exploring less trodden paths – are walking in the liminal space where ideas flourish. I thought I wasn’t seeing people talking about the things I was interested in because I was too far from the centre. In fact, it was the other way around.
So, on that note, I am hoping to explore around two edges of permaculture in the coming months.
Firstly, I want to bring across some of the ideas I picked up in the software world, and talk about them with permaculture people. Six months on a PDC and taking part in these discussions Dan’s been leading, and I’ve moved from “surely these conversations are happening and I just can’t find it” to “nope, there is actually a gaping hole here”. So I’m going to write some blog posts about that and hopefully people will find them interesting and useful. I wish I’d had the gumption to write about this years ago, but I suspect that I would have been speaking into the void – at least now, I know there’s a small but thoughtful community who are already interested in this!
The other area I’ve started to have a lot of feels about is predominance of smallholder and rural lifestyle properties in the permaculture imagination, and the way it both limits permaculture’s growth and excludes people who are, I think, more at risk from climate and economic disasters: those who own no land. I started tossing around the idea of “how would you teach permaculture just for urban renters?” and I have a project emerging from that which you’ll most likely see soon. When I took this idea recently to a permaculture educators gathering, an influential international educator said that she’d been thinking about how displaced and nomadic people could use permaculture. So I hope, again, that “permaculture without land” is an idea that people are ready to explore.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (or the associated Tinyletter) you’ll know that it’s been fairly small-scale and domestic. That stuff’s likely to continue, but I hope you’ll come along with me as I broaden my scope, and start to post about some bigger ideas.