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Russ Grayson reports…

WHAT MAY BE the first global survey of permaculture practitioners has just been released by Permaculture UK.
Entitled The Next Big Step: Permaculture, practices, passions and priorities for collaborative working, the analysis is a compilation of data collected by a survey conducted between June 2015 and July 2016. The analysis was released in June 2017.

Reliable data lacking

The survey was made possible because it was conducted through The Next Big Step for Permaculture (NBS), a global initiative started at International Permaculture Convergence 13 in Cuba and followed-up at the UK international convergence in 2016. It was necessary, according to a UK permaculture practitioner, because “permaculture is the only global movement that doesn’t act like one”, because many of the issues permaculture practitioners address locally are global issues and because there is a lack of international coordination and communication among permaculture organisations.
The survey goes some way to addressing the lack of information about the extent and practice of the permaculture design system as well as the characteristics of practitioners. The statistics and more-general information that would enable its participants to track the spread, content and practices making up permaculture in different countries has been missing, largely because there has been no organisation with the reach to survey and compile it. This limits mutual learning.
Opinion within the permaculture CoLab, the international organisation that emerged from The Next Big Step, is that permaculture is practiced in around 130 countries and participation may be as high as three million. What constitutes a baseline for a permaculture presence in a country remains undefined (though I anticipate something on this coming from Permaculture CoLab) and obtaining information about permaculture practice is potentially difficult. Thus, any information about how the design system is practiced internationally, such as the new document offers, is useful.
A few years ago Permaculture Australia surveyed its members to gain an idea of who they are and what their aspirations and needs are, however that was the first (that I know of) substantive survey since the launch of the permaculture design system with the book, Permaculture One, in 1978.

The survey

Between June 2015 to July 2016 the online survey was distributed in English, French and German to individual practitioners over 18 years of age and to selected permaculture organisations at “the highest strategic level of organisation in each country” (see the document for details of organisational response).
A total of 451 responses from 36 countries were received.
Breakdown of the 399 respondents who gave a country reveals responses from:

  • Europe — 35.6%
  • Oceania (Australia, New Zealand) — 33.3%
  • North America — 23.6%.

The top three countries were

  • Australia — 32.6%
  • USA — 21.6%
  • UK — 16.0%.

NBS qualified the geographic dominance by saying, “We know that this doesn’t represent the true pattern of permaculture as there are many practitioners in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is important to remember that this survey is just a snapshot of the whole community of permaculture practitioners and those from poorer countries are significantly underrepresented.
“Latin America was significantly underrepresented (largely due to issues with translation to Spanish) as were Asia and the Middle East. A greater number of people from Africa responded but the majority were from Europe, Oceania and North America and tended to be English speaking.”
The organisational survey was completed by 52 organisations in 34 different countries. The majority of these (53%) were European (from 20 different countries), with 16% from North America, 10% from Oceania and 10% from Africa.

The findings

Among the findings are:

  • ethnicity of permaculture practitioners was defined largely in line with nationality, with some describing themselves as Caucasian, black or white and others defining themselves on the basis of geographic region such as European
  • reasons for the lower numbers in the 21-25 year old category are unclear and “merit further investigation”
  • both males and females were well represented
  • respondents were from a range of adult ages with slightly fewer from the youngest and oldest age categories than might be expected; in the 66+ brackets this may be due to lower likelihood of accessing the online survey.

While it is true that fewer people in the older age group use online systems in comparison with younger people, in Australia that age bracket constitutes a growing number of people accessing the internet and social media, suggesting that the survey could have potentially reached more of the age bracket practicing permaculture.
People classifying themselves as black or white was less helpful. Both categories include a range of ethnicities.
Overall, there are more people 36-65 and fewer younger people (16-25) involved in permaculture than might be expected from the wider population.
As for gender, there has been discussion on permaculture social media. Some have claimed that women are underrepresented in permaculture while others have said they are more or less equally represented. Further discussion suggests that both claims could be true if the claim is restricted to the region the claimant lives in.
The survey points to an approximate gender equivalency, with women comprising 52.3 percent of respondents and men 46.3 percent. A total of 1.4 percent selected a different identity.
In the 36 to 45 age bracket, women were in a smaller majority than in the 46 to 55 age bracket where they made up almost 60 percent of respondents. Other than that, nowhere is there any significant difference between male and female numbers with the exception of the 16 to 20 age bracket where respondents, numbering around two to three percent of the total, were male.
This does not necessarily represent a gender breakdown for permaculture as a whole or even for it in the more-developed world. By whom it is practiced in other cultures, such as those in lesser-developed regions, may be strongly influenced by traditional gender roles. The survey findings, though, do give us some idea of the gender balance of the more-motivated permaculture practitioners who took the time to respond to it.
The survey, which the NBS has described as a “snapshot”, might not have been a large enough sample to be representative.

The individuals

‘Who are permaculture practitioners? If the survey is indicative, they are:

  • well-educated; almost two-thirds have a degree-level tertiary qualification, a higher proportion than national averages for educational attainment (in the UK approximately 36.9% of people aged 16-74 have a degree level qualification or above, in Australia this is 44% of 15-74 year olds and in the USA 28% of adults aged 25 or over; in Europe 31.7% of people aged 25-54 and 19.5% of 55-74 year olds have a tertiary education qualification)
  • educational qualification is most often in a subject aligned to landuse and nature and least commonly in finance and economics which accounts for only 2.9% of all respondents; also less popular are tools and technology; communications rates a lowly 2.8% and law 0.6%; building accounts for 11.8% made up of architecture and surveying at 4.5%, engineering 2.8%, manual trades 4.5%
  • most are interested in learning new skills
  • most want to improve their permaculture design skills
  • fundraising was the area of lowest skill and it was where most wanted to skill-up
  • two thirds or respondents had a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC, aka Permaculture Design Course) as their highest level of permaculture qualification
  • 20% have progressed to a diploma in permaculture design
  • around 70% use permaculture at a personal level
  • over half consider permaculture a lifestyle choice
  • 45% work in permaculture.

Permaculture’s priorities

The survey asked what respondents regard as the priorities of the permaculture design system. Comments recognised that permaculture carries different meanings for different people, which, according to NBS, “gives both value and limitation to its effectiveness.”
Responses to the priorities question included:

  • developing resilient and self-reliant communities, the majority choice
  • restoring ecosystems, the second most popular selection
  • “join our voices in a clear message to the world” was the least popular option and a curious one, raising questions about how exponents see permaculture’s role in the world and its utility as a means of influencing global trends.

The questions on how to achieve these priorities brought a range of responses:

  • the majority of respondents felt that developing the credibility and visibility of permaculture as a solution is fundamental
  • teaching permaculture as part of school studies, which NBS says is most valuable “perhaps for the broad-scale impact that this option offers.”

Asked about research in permaculture, the main priority was “provide reliable evidence for effective permaculture practices and approaches”, further suggesting that building a strong evidence base to improve the credibility of permaculture is a priority among respondents.
This gets back to what ex-NASA scientist, then-head of the Context Institute in the USA, Dr Robert Gilman, told Australian permaculture practitioners in 1995. Robert said permaculture needs publicly-accessible demonstration sites where people could come to see permaculture in action and see that it offered viable solutions. We now have places that do this, however the response to the question in the survey might suggest these still remain too few or too under-publicised.

Permaculture education — a continuing question

Options for standardising the PDC and teacher training curriculums were polarising according to NBS, with comments “recognising both the value and the limitations of this approach.”
Several comments suggested establishing a basic minimum standard for courses and support for permaculture educators. Others suggested supporting teachers to “develop effective approaches and helping them to connect with potential students would be of benefit.”
The question of PDC content and structure has been a sometimes-vexed one in Australia. It became controversial 15 or so years ago and focused mainly on whether the PDC content and structure established by the Permaculture Institute (created by Bill Mollison at the start of the eighties and through which the early PDCs were offered) was the only valid design course. Those supporting this model said that the chapter arrangement and content of Bill Mollison’s 1988 book, Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual was the only valid model for the PDC. Others proposed a more flexible structure and content, some adopting permaculture educator and international development worker, Rosemary Morrow’s The Earth Keepers Guide to Permaculture as a course handbook on the claim that it was a more accessible source of information. Permaculture education moved on after that and both models are in use today.
The issue demonstrates the potential difficulty of coming to any binding or voluntary agreement on permaculture courses and teachers as was demonstrated in the survey.

Gaining greater coherence

Summarising the findings, NBS suggests where effort could be focused to create better global coherence in permaculture:

  1. Facilitate connections between organisations in permaculture, and aid the development of mutually beneficial support structures for teaching, leadership, and organisational development.
  2. Develop a credible evidence base for permaculture, drawing on both extant exemplars and investigating the effectiveness and applicability of approaches. Support the wider dissemination of such findings to expedite real change at local and regional levels, and ultimately across the world.
  3. Recognise the strength of the diversity in the movement and enable organisations and individuals to connect and collaborate more effectively on areas of mutual passion.
  4. Facilitate connections between permaculture organisations and allied organisations to enable more effective action on shared issues.
  5. Enable social eco-entrepreneurial activity to ensure the longer-term viability of organisations and to enable more practitioners to put their creativity, energy and skills into the kind of work they find most rewarding.

A useful document

Some will undoubtedly question the validity of a document that lacks substantive input from non-English-speaking permaculture practitioners. That is a reality the organisers recognise. Anyone with experience in unfunded or poorly-funded community associations or social enterprise will know how limited resources are a reality that limits what small organisations can accomplish.
This is an information-rich document for an information-poor social movement. Despite its limitations it holds a mirror to permaculture practice through which we can gaze to see what it looks like. Importantly, it gives ideas for improving the situation of the design system.
The document contains detail of the findings and is worthwhile reading for those interested in permaculture’s trajectory in the world and how it is perceived.
Find The Next Big Step: Permaculture, practices, passions and priorities for collaborative working:
The document is issued under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported licence.
Investigating priorities for The Next Big Step for Permaculture was a session at Australasian Permaculture Convergence 13 in Perth in 2016:

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