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Jack Spirko
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The Four Boat Anchors Holding Back Permaculture

Posted by Jack Spirko over 9 years ago

Where does the future of Permaculture lie? Well, I would like to start off with where it doesn’t lie as that may lead us along faster if we are open and honest about it. These are areas where I feel we are wasting time if we put any real effort into the

The Four Boat Anchors Holding Back Permaculture

Where does the future of Permaculture lie?  Well, I would like to start off with where it doesn’t lie as that may lead us along faster if we are open and honest about it.  These are areas where I feel we are wasting time if we put any real effort into them…

1.  Influencing the individual politics of others

2.  Bitching about what is wrong with the current system

3.  Doing everything for free or as a “nonprofit”

4.  Focusing on PDCs over on the ground “workshops” and multiple income sources

I honestly believe each of the above represents no less than a series of boat anchors that hold back permaculture from moving forward at a much faster pace and gaining broader main stream acceptance.  Indeed if each is examined with a basic analysis of what it creates versus what it impedes the true way to move Permaculture into broader acceptance becomes clear in my opinion.

Boat Anchor One – Influencing the Individual Politics of Others

Let me be clear, I feel we are largely past the point of political solutions to most of mankind’s problems.  I classify myself as an anarcho libertarian but I really don’t care what you call yourself, I really don’t.  You can be a liberal, a conservative, a centrist, whatever, as long as you are using and practicing permaculture, I feel we are going in the right direction.  Make no mistake I am happy to debate politics with you, just not as a permaculture teacher or evangelist.

It is my personal contention that permaculture is an anti-political movement, one that is more anarchist than anything else.  Yet I will admit I am not an authority when it comes to this claim, I prefer to cite permaculture’s founder, Bill Mollison in making this claim.  Bill said the following in an interview you can view at this link http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/mollison.html

“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.”Permaculture-Anarchist

Friends, I just don’t think it gets clearer than that!  Too many permaculturists seem obsessed with solutions through legislation, “We need the government to _________”.  I laugh at this because what we in Permaculture most need from government is for them to get the hell out of our way.  Doubt me?  Try to set up an ecovillage and really live fully off grid.  When you do, the first real problem you will encounter is the government, along with a mile of codes.  Frankly urban farmers and front yard gardens are assaulted almost daily in many parts of the US.  Hell, why do you think Joel Salitan wrote a book called, “Everything I Want to do is Illegal”?

To me Permaculture is our best solution because it calls for action rather than committees and endless discussions about why the other side is the problem.  Let me put it this way, if you are worried about carbon, leave taxes out of it when spreading the permaculture message.  Stick to how to build self-sufficiency and less carbon will go in the air and more will go in the soil.  One hugul bed will put more carbon in the soil then a hundred CFL bulbs will prevent from going into the atmosphere.  You want social justice and food for the poor, go plant a garden where it will feed the poor.  It is that simple.  Now the truth is, when you plant that garden, likely the only problem you will tend to encounter is government obstruction.   You may want to consider that the next time you put your faith in a state based solution.  The key is though none of this is important if what you really want is more permaculture systems, permaculture businesses and permaculture living.

Teach permaculture thinking, and by that I mean the design science of permaculture.  Once people have that it will influence them, it will lead them to better choices.  You don’t have to tell them where they are wrong in your view, just show them how to be productive and you will accomplish more.  There have been thousands of people turned off by what most would call “leftist ideology” in permaculture.  Frankly, if you choose one side of the current political spectrum as your platform, you just shut down 50% of your market.  I’d call that cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Let me be clear, it doesn’t matter which side you choose, you cost yourself 50% of your potential market, either way.

The big reason to get off the politics though in permaculture is it works, it converts the unconverted.  To be blunt, when taught pragmatically, permaculture converts the heathens!  Preaching to the converted about things you all agree about does almost nothing to further permaculture thinking and design implementation.  Teaching things like technique, design and function stacking is what does that.  Does it really work?  In early 2013, Geoff Lawton approached me and asked that I promote his online PDC to my audience.  I was happy to do so, well, the results were over 500 registrations out of my audience alone.  The majority of these people are either politically right leaning or are libertarian oriented such as myself.  In other words not the usual suspects.

So where do you apply your political goals?  In political arenas, and if you want to take permaculture with you God speed!  I would love to see both liberals and conservatives shoving permaculture thinking at their elected officials.  Hell, wouldn’t you like to see a couple million letter to congressmen that read, “Dear Honorable ______, I would like to know how your current policies are taking responsibility for ourselves and that of our children?  Further I would like to know how you are caring for the earth, caring for people and returning all surplus to the system you are taking it from?”  I think it is a long road and you are talking to people more concerned with power rather than solutions but, hey, I want permaculture everywhere so go for it.  Just understand, you insist on making permaculture a political ideology, you will never grow it as rapidly as it can be grown on its own merits.

I would like to ask permaculturists that use the phrase “climate change” in every third sentence a simple question.  If God himself spoke to your face and said, “I control the climate, fossil fuels have nothing to do with it”, would you still be as passionate about permaculture as you are now?  Frankly my answer is yes I sure as hell would!  I am trying to feed people, create individual liberty, stop desertification and prevent soil erosion along with a million other things.   And hey if you really believe we need carbon sequestration, set a goal to get 10,000 feet of hugul beds installed or to get 100 food forests planted and don’t worry who the hell does it.  I mean, what is really important, the solution or who is “right” about the problem?  Please read that last question again and it you have a hard time answering it, think about what that really means.

Boat Anchor Two – Bitching about what is wrong with the current system.

This one there is a place for, that place is waking people up, but once they are awake, shelve it and focus on what to do right, not what others are doing wrong.  Frankly I am a permaculture maniac when it comes to spreading the word.  I know it works, I know how important it is and I will get a person interested by any tactic that will work as long as it is ethical.  If showing them a factory chicken farm will do it, done!  If explaining our main export is top soil will do it, done!  If explaining GMOs and the reality that Roundup and Atrazine are in our food supply will do it, done!  If explaining that I can cut their electric bill will do it, done!  If showing them a beautiful food forest will do it, then I will do that.

The last item is the one I prefer, I feel it works better.  You show someone massive productivity, great quality food and ease of maintenance and you generally get a question along the lines of “How can I do that”?  If I get that question, I answer it, if I get a question like, “What can I do about GMOs?” I answer that.  The key though is once I get a “how do I” or “what can I” from someone, I don’t really need to talk about what is wrong ever again; I simply need to show them and teach them what works.

At this point I want to instill the following in a person, the prime directive and the three ethics.

Prime Directive – The only responsible action is to take responsibility for ourselves and for that of our children.

Ethic One – Care of the earth.

Ethic Two – Care of people.

Ethic Three – Return of surplus to the end of the first two

If I can get them that far, from that point on, all I want to discuss is design science and system implementation.  If they just want a garden, great we start there.  Gardens are the gateway drug to permaculture.  Sure they will have more weed issues and struggle a bit more in the beginning than if they sheet mulched and planted a more involved polyculture with some minor earthworks, but that is their choice.  When they get tired of fighting but hooked on good food, they will ask for more.

I am not focused on the farm conglomerate with 10,000 acres of GMO soy.  It concerns me, but I know I won’t change their minds with words or calling a congressman.  Nor will I focus on the CAFOs.  I am instead looking for the land owner barely getting by with 100 acres and some cattle who will consider a permaculture system.  I want to tell this person, I can do the following for you…

Produce more and healthier cattle than you are right now that will sell at a premium

Reduce your expenses

Also produce hogs on that same land

Also produce chickens on that same land

Also produce over 100 varieties of nuts and fruits on that same land

Eliminate or drastically reduce irrigation

Enable you to hire more people at a great wage and still make more money for yourself

Make your land so productive and valuable that you will never risk losing it

Make your land so beautiful that your community will want to help you protect it

Build your top soil and fertility

Use heavy equipment for 2 weeks in a way that will eliminate your need to use it ever again

Give you more water than you know what to do with

Eliminate any need for fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides

Give your farm so much value some people will pay just to come look at it

Make is so beautiful and stable your great grandchildren will cherish it and you for creating it

When I think about that, I have no time for bitching about what is wrong with our current system.  People do that daily, they gripe and moan and complain and then go to Walmart and buy the very crappy food they are bitching about.

On that note, I am not about to tell a single mom barely getting by how shitty food at Walmart is for her kids.  She knows that and doesn’t need me to make her feel worse about it.  Here is what I want to tell that mom, let me show you how to…

Grow food in your back yard from things you can get for free

Teach your children responsibility, work ethics and to care about themselves and others

Cut the cost of your grocery bills

Create a place your children want to spend their time and their friends want to be there too

Empower yourself to not be dependent on others

Know that you will be okay even if support systems like water or electricity fail

Feed your kids food of such high quality that it will put food from yuppie places like Whole Foods to shame

Inspire your entire neighborhood to do the same things

Solve problems, move yourself into a better place in life and understand true wealth

Set you and your family on fire with the knowledge that what you do matters

This approach works because it focuses on what people can do and most importantly what they can do now.  Some in permaculture seem addicted to problems, that is all they wish to discuss, Monsanto this and factory farming that.  Hey I get it, but do you know what happens if you tell a person long enough about how many problems there are?  First they get pissed off, then they start talking about what should be done, then they get overwhelmed, then they go back to business as usual and feel defeated.  They simply feel there is nothing they can do.  You want permaculture to move forward, show people what to do, help them do it and ask them to pass that on.

Rich stars on TV may advocate organic food and talk about the evils of factory farming, but one guy with a shovel can do more to fix that problem than any such people will ever do.   You want to fix our current issues, hand out shovels, rakes, hoes and instructions on how to use them.
Boat Anchor Three – Doing everything for free or as a “nonprofit”.

I find this one to be a well-meaning sentiment but largely connected to the first boat anchor of political ideology.  We have entered a world where profit is equated with “evil corporations” and all corporations are evil in the minds of many people today.  Then that same person who fears the connotations of evil corporations, incorporates but as a nonprofit.  Let me say something as a business person, totally devoid of permaculture, just as a flat business principle.  You don’t set up a corporate structure on any feel good ideology, political correctness or anything other than practical, pragmatic and legal reasoning.

A nonprofit corporation is just as capable of doing evil as a for profit corporation.  In fact, in some cases, they can do more harm by hiding behind the lacy white curtain of “nonprofit status”.  Over 300 million given to the Red Cross for the Haitian earthquake, blowing away like a fart in the wind springs to mind! Plenty of big nonprofits collect millions and millions of dollars and have CEOs with the same G class jets as Exxon and Monsanto CEOs.  Being a not for profit corporation is a technical and legal decision.  I have set up companies as both not for profit and as for profit and I prefer for profit, mainly because the government has less to say about how I run my business.

There are times specifically when working with government agencies or specific NGOs (non-governmental organizations) where this status makes a lot of sense or is it becomes practically mandatory.   I will leave the not for profit discussion with this piece of advice; before setting up any business entity, discuss it with a qualified business attorney with a solid understanding of tax law.  Don’t do it on LegalZoom.com, on your own for ANY BUSINESS, and know why the hell you are choosing the specific form.

I bring the above up only because the zeal to be a nonprofit company in permaculture is seldom fueled in my experience by any of the value of that structure.  It is mostly fueled because of this concept that to profit is somehow wrong or evil.  Look guys, here is a permaculture principle, “obtain a yield” and how about “a yield is technically unlimited”?  Well, in a business, yield is profit that is why a business exists to make a profit.  Businesses that make no profit end up bankrupt, got it?

When many starry eyed permaculture newbies want to become a professional permaculture teacher/consultant/writer/superhero/etc and race right for 501C3 status here is what they are actually saying, “I want to make enough money to pay myself and perhaps my employees a reasonable salary; I don’t want the company itself to be profitable”.  Great you don’t need 501C status, the year of waiting to be approved and the additional restrictions that it comes with it for that.  Instead, just pay out all profit as salary, if you feel overpaid, donate the surplus.  Done, your company makes zero profit; you pay the taxes as an individual and donate any of the evil money that is “too much for one person to have” to whatever you want.  Sadly though if this is how you think, likely those evil profits will never show up and you will be working a typical wage slave J-O-B in order to fund your “business”.

Let me put it to you this way, permaculture is the greatest system of design, thinking and problem solving ever created.  If you really get it, you should be able to build a back yard oasis one day and paddock shift systems bordered by food forest strips the next.  Then you should be able to solve the functional problems of a typical business that has nothing to do with farming the very next day.   Sure you might bill the mom in the burbs at a lower rate than the farmer with 80 acres and you might not, as with all things permaculture, “it depends”.  If that mom in the burbs is well to do and can afford it, she gets my market rate.  If she is not so well to do but simply middle class maybe I work the rate a bit lower.  If she is dead broke, she can pay me with adding to my portfolio, a letter of recommendation and a promise to be a force of good in her community, but she is going to provide value for value or I ain’t doing it. Does that make sense?  We all have “value” and value should be exchanged for value in business.

Whether you are teaching and consulting or running your own farm, permaculture needs to be profitable if you are doing it as a business.  Don’t get me wrong, if you have a job you want to keep, pay your bills that way and just love doing permaculture that is fine.  If you have extra time and want to organize “permablitzs” at no real fee, go ahead, that is awesome, but you won’t pay your mortgage that way, so don’t delude yourself into thinking you will.

Let me put it to you this way, money is not evil.  Money is nothing but a symbol for energy agreed upon as such by members of an economy.  It is merely a means of exchange, nothing more. It isn’t alive; it doesn’t make its own decisions.  Money, to put it in a permaculture metaphor, is like a giant bulldozer.  In the hands of one man it can destroy a forest or put a strip mall in where a park used to be.  Yet in our hands it can build a damn, rip a key line, build a swale and establish a food forest.  Oh and for that dozer to do all those wonderful things you know what you need?  Money!  You need money to buy or rent the dozer, money to fuel it, money for a good operator to run it, money for infrastructure for the dozer to install, etc.

Simply put, many in permaculture suffer from a poverty consciousness.  Permaculture is about abundance, one can’t really create abundance with a mindset glued to scarcity.  So if you have a poverty consciousness and want to succeed in a permaculture business, get over it.  Then you can be as charitable as you want and hell, you will likely end up having a great deal to give.

Boat Anchor Four – Focusing on PDCs over on the ground “workshops” and multiple income sources

I have had a few conversations with “successful permaculture businesses” and when reviewing their revenue teaching 2-6 PDCs a year provided from 75-95% of their income.  Whoa!  Talk about exposure to a down economy!  Hey guys, isn’t this supposed to be about sustainability?  How sustainable is a field with one crop?  Now bridge the gap in your mind, how sustainable is a business with one revenue source?  The PDC is the big money maker for many “pros”, some because frankly they are simply that good and that in demand.  For those folks, great, rock on.  Yet there can only be so many people of that status in what is, at least for now, a relatively small emerging market.   For many, the reason PDCs are the main source of revenue is only because it’s the one thing they can sell enough of at a high enough price to survive.

I personally don’t try to make a lot of money on permaculture but we do fairly well with on the ground workshops.  I can do this because I am not in permaculture for money; I have a business that pays my bills.  I do permaculture for the pure evangelistic zeal of spreading it.  Yet I do know how to run businesses, so if I were to quit my career as a Podcaster, how would I build a profitable permaculture business.  I would do something like this

Install the best green and shade houses I could afford – plant business selling plants and cuttings

Install a blow you away permaculture site on my own property – feeds the above and tours for a fee

Save and market the shit out of seeds, specifically stuff that isn’t in every catalog – seed business

Set up pasture based laying chickens and if possible meat birds – eggs sold to neighbors may be meat too

I would run 6-8 large scale on the ground workshops a year, dirty hands stuff – student fees

I would likely teach 2 PDCs a year at most, I would follow Bill Wilson’s model and do part online and on site.

http://midwestpermaculture.com/about/our-certification-courses/ – Yes a solid income from PDCs

I would however, really make my mark as a local consultant.  I would go to every botanical garden, nature center or arboretum in 100 miles of my home and learn every plant that can be grown in my area.   I would have meet up groups teaching basics like sheet mulching for free and for small fees in some instances.  I would find a local herbalist and become a local plants expert.  I would visit every place with a lawn where someone would talk to me and show them photos of what it could become.  I would never answer questions from people the way we do in a PDC with “it depends” rather with, do this or do that, or tell me more so I can answer that for you.

The focus on PDCs as a gold standard for revenue, to me is a boat anchor because, while I wish every person on the planet would do it, it simply really isn’t for everyone.  A PDC is really quite demanding, it requires a very high level of thinking and like most educations; it is more about how to learn rather than what you learn.  When you leave a PDC one of two things happens.

You now have a way of thinking that leads to a lifetime of developing, teaching, designing but above all learning.  You have been converted into a student of permaculture forever.  A status you will never graduate from.

You think to yourself something like, “none of my real questions about what to plant in my yard where answered with anything other than ‘it depends’, why did I pay 1,200 dollars for that”?

You see, a PDC doesn’t actually make you to be a great designer; it gives you a foundation so you can become one.  A PDC is a gateway to a lifetime of study, research and gaining experience.  A permaculturist, if he or she is really good, is an architect of natural systems.  One doesn’t become an architect in a 72 hour course.  Many people take a PDC and sadly end up with feeling like option 2 versus option 1 above and I think, at least to a degree, it is because we oversell PDCs.

I recently taught a course with a fellow teacher.  An individual with what I would call a Ferrari level permaculture education.  A teacher certified by the PRI as a teacher, a guy with almost every course you can take under his belt.  The man is brilliant in every way a permaculturist can be.  Yet, at the end of this class as students presented designs (this was not a PDC) he kept saying things like, “You did that design and you don’t even have a PDC”.  Frankly about 90% of the students had not taken a PDC before this class and my co-instructor was actually apprehensive about teaching a course as complex as we put together to people who had not yet taken a PDC.  Again, I think this is because we have over sold the PDC to even ourselves.

I think there are two types of people that should take PDCs, they are

People that want an actual career of some sort in permaculture and know exactly what they will and won’t get at a PDC.

People that don’t want a career but know exactly what they will and won’t get at a PDC and still want to take one.

Both should see PDCs as a foundation, not as a one-time event.  If you go to a good school to learn about self-defense with firearms, they will spend most of their time teaching you how to train on your own once you leave.  So it is with a PDC.  You are exposed to systems, designs, patterns, function stacking from concepts used all over the world; many will never apply to you directly.  Most of us will never develop a chinampa because we won’t have a location suitable for doing it.  Yet every PDC I have ever been part of has chinampas as part of the instruction.  The reason to me as it leads so many, “Well, what if I did _______” thoughts.  That is the point; the point isn’t to try to build a chinampa system in a Chicago suburb on a 10th of an acre or in a California desert where it just doesn’t fit.  The value in the knowledge of a chinampa, even if you never build one, is what elements of it you can stack into a more appropriate solution for a design’s needs and restrictions.

This is the thinking one should go into a PDC with.  If not likely you won’t really get the most out of it.  Many people will be much better served to go to an intensive workshop about sheet mulching and urban back yard design that is tailored to where they live.  So guess what folks, sell that to them, deliver it and do a damn good job with it.  Teach them about 50 or more plants and show them how to catch roof water, don’t talk about it, do it, show it, and really teach it.  Show them how to get IBCs cheap, don’t just say it, show it.  Give people sources of materials and plants not just what stuff to use and buy.  Form relationships with suppliers; network the shit out of those relationships as well.

My point is this.  In permaculture there are many vertical markets.  The top level educational market of PDCs and advanced earthworks, soils, urban design, long term internships, etc. is actually a very narrow vertical.  The larger markets are things like…

Local demand for how to design my own back yard

Seeds and plants

Site level consulting

Dozens more

The truth is a lot of people in our world are broke because we are busy trying to sell something expensive to a group that is also often broke.  There are millions of people that want at least a piece of what we have to offer and many of them have money, lots of money.  Sell to them and sell them what they want and what they actually need.  If they don’t need a PDC, sell them what they do need. If you do that you might find that many will start buying.

Some may think I am overly harsh in this article.  I am sorry if anyone feels that way but I come at this with a very long track record of being successful in business.  I am not here to talk about mud fairies and rainbows.  I see permaculture as a solution to many of the most critical problems in our time.  I want as many on board with as much as they will get on board with as I can get.  The “hippy market” is small and mostly, not fully, but mostly broke.  I can’t get permaculture into 1,000,000 new back yards with that approach, and neither can you.  If we want the vast majority to get at least a little tuned in to permaculture we have to take it to them, in their language on their level.

I will be doing a presentation on these concepts at Permaculture Voices in March of 2014. In my presentation I will lay out detailed plans for making Permaculture profitable and main stream.  If you would like to learn more about this conference where over 40 of Permaculture’s biggest names will be presenting, visit www.permaculturevoices.com

Comments (3)

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Richard Larson
Richard Larson : I think there are too many variables to draw any distinctions right now.
Posted over 9 years ago

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kurt liebe
kurt liebe : great article... more please...
Posted about 9 years ago

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Robert Hones
Robert Hones : We need action, not committees and never-ending debates about why the other side is the problem, which is why I believe permaculture is the best answer. | www.ericksonmanono.com/portfolio
Posted 7 months ago

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