What I learned about permaculture by going back to university:

I have been involved in the world of permaculture – learning, practising, and teaching, for over twenty years. In that time the importance and urgency of climate action and social inequity has become more and more apparent, and I firmly believe that the permaculture framework of ethically informed design principles and strategies provides a road map to take effective action. We all have a part to play as individuals, and most people are introduced to permaculture in their own gardens as a way of designing abundant and ecologically sensitive spaces. What might happen if the decision makers, and their advisors, at every level, level learn about permaculture as a comprehensive framework for sustainable living, and become aware of what it has to offer?

Like many people, I was frustrated by the lack of action at upper levels of decision makers and government, and curious about how the permaculture framework might intersect with other models of sustainability, and what it could bring to the wider sustainability discourse. I had also been out of mainstream work and education for quite a few years, so to cut a long story short, so I made the leap back into study.

I chose to complete a Master of Environment and Sustainability at Monash University*, as it promised to be a wide ranging interdisciplinary program, with connections to institutes and think-tanks, and opportunities to engage in real-world projects. This has been both enormously challenging and rewarding. My first academic essay in many years – what a headache! Navigating the online library system was a new experience. Despite which, I have been able to engage with an extraordinary group of academics, professionals, sustainability experts, and an emerging group of early career students, all with a drive and passion to contribute to addressing the complex intertwined problems of environmental, societal and economic systems.

From the first day, I started to situate my understanding of permaculture within the broader sustainability discourse. I could see many overlaps with permaculture thinking, however the language was different. For example, Water Sensitive Urban Design, or Social Ecological Systems theory will immediately sound familiar, and a quick search will find many journal articles and discussion papers about their theory and application. A similar search for publications about permaculture results in a small number of responses, mainly about specific aspects such as food security projects in the Global South, rather than the framework as a whole. What I also found very quickly was that among both staff and students, most understood permaculture as an alternative hippy-ish way of gardening. It became my personal mission to broaden their understanding, and at least create some curiosity about what permaculture has to offer, at a scale where it can create wide-reaching change.

For my advanced study units, I chose to write a thesis, with a focus on permaculture education and its relationship to transformational learning theory (more on that at a later date!). This allowed me to dive deep into as much published material about permaculture as I could find, and investigate at length peoples’ perceptions of what permaculture has to offer. It was a fascinating and revealing exploration of the forty-year history of permaculture thinking and writing.

Why does this matter? I realised throughout the course of writing my thesis, and completing my study overall, that permaculture is the most comprehensive framework for true sustainability that I have come across. In two years of being introduced to many different frameworks and models, not one is as complete, as broadly applicable to almost every scenario, or embedded in a set of ethics and principles so clearly described. My appreciation to co-founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren is enormous, along with the influences that informed their work (particularly indigenous wisdom and systems theory), and also to the elders of the permaculture community who have practiced and shared this knowledge internationally during the last forty years.

The next challenge that I see is how to influence up, how to take permaculture thinking to the decision makers and influencers of policy, to the scientists, educators and philosophers that have access? How do we discuss and apply permaculture to address the challenges that need government and policy to steer effective action, while being driven at a community level and including diverse voices, needs and opinions?

If you are already working in this space, thank you. I would love to connect and talk with you about how we as permaculture practitioners can collaborate to create something greater than the sum of its parts. If you are new to permaculture, or have been happy in your garden, perhaps consider how you might be able to have a conversation in your local community, school or workplace that opens a dialogue and creates broader understanding. One great strength of permaculture is our community of members (formal and informal), and their commitment to social and environmental equity. If that commitment can be connected and channeled in an effective way, truly sustainable change is possible.

What next? I’m taking a break to catch my breath and consider my options, while getting my fingers back in the dirt, making compost and planting trees. I’m running the annual Permaculture Design Course which inpires me with an awesome group of new students and change makers. I’m committed to creating connections within my local community, and also throughout academic, creative, and professional fields wherever I can get a foot in the door, and a word in the conversation. If you’ve got this far, thank you for reading, and I hope we can talk soon.

*No they haven’t paid, asked, requested or even know that I have put the link in. This is based on my own recommendation that if you are considering further study, this course is worth a look!

4 thoughts on “What I learned about permaculture by going back to university:

  1. Permaculture was conceived as a protest, an anger, a rejection of the way the structure of society, food production, energy has evolved. It is grass roots. Not top down. Bill Mollision said judge people by what they do, not by what they say.
    You say…”The next challenge that I see is how to influence up, how to take permaculture thinking to the decision makers and influencers of policy, to the scientists, educators and philosophers that have access? ” Permaculturists are encouraged to develop an ethos that is far smarter that that lot, it is now a question of whether they are courageous enough to meet the challenges.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m well aware of the foundations of permaculture, somewhat ironically in academia. It has always been a grass roots movement, and I believe it also has a unique perspective to offer a wider sustainability discourse at every level. By creating a division between ourselves and “that lot” we need to reflect on how we live our ethic of People Care, or practice the principle ‘integrate rather than segregate.’ The complex challenges faced by society and environment require us all to contribute as best we can, and if permaculture has a role to play it needs to be widely shared, understood and practiced.


  2. Loving this. Sustainable eating is so important (I’ve dedicated my blog n Instagram to it) n permaculture really is such a great way to achieve it! I’d love to learn more about permaculture if u have time to share more!


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