Permaculture, it might be said, is notorious on the left for its anti-political standpoint. Mollison’s Global Gardener 1991 documentary TV series shows him strolling across a misty paddock, reflecting on his realisation that political protests achieved little. Instead, he suggests, planting a sustainable food garden is effective grassroots action. So, why write a book on the politics of permaculture, a topic seemingly without a referent?
This book works from the premise that politics is not always channelled through a state, a discovery of the second wave feminist movement. Nevertheless, there is much to be said about the politics of permaculture as an attempt to challenge the capitalist system. During the last few years of dreadful lockdowns, I have been working on this topic as a sociologist. The Politics of Permaculture is now published and available from Pluto Press.
Through innovative agriculture and settlement design, the permaculture movement is defined through the grassroots activism that Mollison suggests. Originating in 1970s Australia permaculture has flourished into a worldwide movement working towards ‘system change’ through these strategies. This book is probably the first to unpack the political theory and practice of this social movement.
The Political Canon
Drawing on writings from the canonical texts of permaculture, the book explores the way permaculture is defined and understood by the founders of the movement. Through extensive interviews in the global south as well as in the metropole, I examine the way members of the movement constitute their thinking and activism in reference to these texts. These approaches are supplemented with analysis of web texts and the information gained through decades of participation in the movement.
Those outside the movement often struggle to understand the term ‘permaculture’. Most grassroots activists define it as a design science for environmental sustainability. There is a mismatch between formal definitions of permaculture, which equate it to the whole of the environmentalist movement, and practices that locate permaculture as centrally concerned with agriculture. Yet the truth behind this mismatch lies in permaculture’s distinctive view of the environmental crisis and its distinctive view of the solutions. Permaculture anticipates degrowth as the inevitable effect of ‘energy descent’. The canonical texts of permaculture favour decentralized grassroots activism over attempts to take control of the state.
Permaculture can be aptly seen as a social movement. How does permaculture operate? How does the network of permaculture people hang together? In many ways, permaculture is a classic of the ‘new social movements’ as they are understood by sociology. Networked, polycephalous and open. In all of this, very different from a cult. Yet at the same time, the foundational texts constitute a canon defining permaculture for activists.
Permaculture is often condemned by the left for its anti-political strategy. Some in the movement endorse that strategic vision but more are moving towards an overtly political engagement. The anti-politics of permaculture amounts to a strategy of working within the affordances of the capitalist economy to inaugurate a movement towards a new social system. Economically, it relies upon the discretionary wealth of a middle class constituted in post war period and still present today.
Permaculture as a movement for system change hosts a range of visions of a post-capitalist society. Town and market bioregionalism is closest to what the canonical texts of permaculture propose. Popular in the movement today is hope for a cultural change driving changes in market behaviour – backed up by strong state regulation. The vision of a steady state economy. A minority of activists in permaculture identify as socialist or anarchist.
Permaculture favours grassroots interventions to prefigure a permaculture economy. These strategies have much in common with ideas promoted by left social theorists such as Olin Wright and Gibson-Graham. But my book takes a distinctive approach, considering these interventions as hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism. The achievements and difficulties of this strategy can be seen in a close analysis of case studies and interviews.
In care for the earth, care for people and fair shares, permaculturists aim to practice sustainability through looking after all living species and all people. Yet, permaculture has been criticized for a failure to deal with the politics of gender and colonialism adequately. To what extent is permaculture responding to these critiques? How can permaculture grow by strengthening strategies that take permaculture beyond the middle class?
In addressing these kinds of questions, drawing on research in the field, I show how the strategies of permaculture in the global south help ground debates about permaculture. Its practitioners directly address how we might live sustainably in manifestly material ways. There is not only a politics, but also a political economy, of permaculture.
Image: Bill Mollison in Tasmania. Photo credit: David Holmgren
Share this post
Author: Terry Leahy
Terry Leahy is an activist-scholar and conjoint senior lecturer, University of Newcastle, author of Permaculture Strategy for the South African Villages (2009), Humanist Realism for Sociologists (2017), Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First (2019) and The Politics of Permaculture (2021).