Permaculture: Question Authority

Tea_garden_buddhaA culture of personality, permaculture Fathers and their “North of the 38th Parallel” off-spring (again I have to say no Earth Mothers here) have found notoriety through online videos, bits and pieces of beautiful, lush and verdant landscape. One Father that has intrigued me for some time is Geoff Lawton. His most well-known project is the Jordan Valley Project covered in several videos entitled “Greening the Desert.” I think this project is a great example of how social science and community organizing must be part of this work…well, at least if you want to share the wealth.

Shortly after my first viewing of “Greening the Desert” One, Two and the updates, I began to wonder what had happened that the site had not continued to be treated under the permaculture practices and why the funding had been discontinued. Why had new funding sources not been developed?

The issue of funding and what may have happened to the original source for the first Jordan Valley site is touched on when the narrator of the video states that a second site is being considered which will be obtained with funds directly from the Permaculture Research Institute – the organization closely associated with Geoff Lawton.  There were references to having control over the funding so that an outside funding source would not be able to discontinue funding or control how a site is developed.

The majority of articles and videos about the Jordan Valley project present it as a huge success, if not inspirational. According to these sources all of the practices implemented worked, even if for a limited time. Success seemed to be measured by the growth of the plants, by the presence of moisture. By carefully worded subtitles on the screen it was implied that the human community had abandoned the project site. We see bare cropping areas, a facility that had been built as a training facility, and goats wandering freely, allowed to browse wherever, when ever.  An article entitled “Permaculture Greens the Jordanian Desert, But Why Are People Wary?” by Sami Grover, dated October 14, 2010 states:

“While the drip irrigation systems demonstrated in the video are impressive, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the project is reliant on volunteer labor from abroad—while the volunteers describe how the local population has a hard time understanding the idea of saving and using rain water. It’s yet another reminder that outsiders can only do so much when it comes to ‘development’ work—ultimately we have to find solutions that communities will adopt and run with themselves.”

“The second rule: Never go outside the experience of your people.” This quote is from Saul Alinsky, one of the greatest community organizers of the 20th century. Along with horticulture and soil science, anyone hoping to share the concepts of permaculture in an effort to improve the quality of life on this planet NEEDS to read Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Where ever you see the word “enemy” in that text insert the words “fear/ignorance”.

If, for whatever reason, we believe that it is our mission to “help” those who we perceive to be leading impoverished lives, we had better first find out how those communities see themselves. We may believe that our methods and behaviors will bring what we have defined as a ‘better quality of life’.  It is only self-serving and narcissistic to assume that we know best. If we have tools to offer we let others know of them and watch vigilantly for a door to open. Even then, we must enter with humility and with many questions and an open mind so that we provide only that which is asked and in such a way as to support the values of the community asking. Authority is never in the outsider. The safety offered by authority is the only way that a community will take the risk to try something outside of their experience even if that thing may provide them with some relief.

From the minimal research I have done for this review I believe that Mr. Lawton will only find his form of “success” by being more in control of his project site and by inviting “the choir” to come to the site to do all of the ground work.  As a last note, there was one website which was extremely caustic in its reports of Lawton’s lack of “people skills” and his disrespectful treatment of “students” who paid high fees to “learn” at his facility.  In every report there is a thread of truth and a great deal of the author’s perception and interpretation. If only a thread is true, it was a sad and damaging report. Another Internet site offered an email from Scott Pittman, Director, Permaculture Institute, dated December 24 2010 which not only questioned Lawton’s motives and ethics, but grieved the loss of Bill Mollison as an active member of the international movement. Apparently his skill at pedagogy and his work with people was a substantially positive influence in the movement.

It is a sad commentary on the permaculture movement that the most well known “teachers” do no advise their “students” to always think critically, testing ideas and applications as the Buddha advised his followers:

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” – The Kalama Sutra

2 thoughts on “Permaculture: Question Authority

  1. There’s another thing about change that many never mention. In communities that live on the very edge of existence (most of the development projects deal with these communities) there is no room for failure. Any failure can be catastrophic if it causes viability to slip off its very narrow ledge. Which is why there is also little tolerance for innovation, experimentation and risk; these are the tools of the wealthy, not the poor. Necessity is not the mother of invention, it is the child of abundance.

    Those who have never lived on the edge of the abyss can always see that jumping the gap is “worth trying”. Its only worth trying when you have your parachute firmly strapped to your back.

    • Agreed. I live very frugally, have to. On my own and working on a budget to develop The Farm and a demonstration site. Always watching my own personal development and changes in the context of the work. I have quite a wide demographic of customers and clients which is a challenge to stay genuine and still present the information in a way that makes sense to each person. My neighbors refer to my work as my ‘ministry’. And yet, of course, my “edge” is no where near that of some of the alleged beneficiaries of the permaculture gurus. And I am blessed to have a “parachute” in that I have full-time employment – another challenge to stay genuine in my Practice. I am not certain that any failure can be catastrophic. Dealing with nature and chaos theory on a daily basis, we do not have the luxury of engineering our failure points. Will there be no failures with nature after sharing the Practice with others? But minor failures can be allowed – just as successes can be set up – so that the community can feel those events and recover and see the future. Setting it all up without preparing for the inevitable bad weather, drought, insects, seed failure, and the tool to see through it to the other side, is the catastrophic part. Not hope; forward movement.

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