The results of the first global survey of permaculture practitioners has been released by Permaculture Association UK.
Entitled The Next Big Step: Permaculture, practices, passions and priorities for collaborative working, the analysis reports data collected between June 2015 and July 2016. It was released in June 2017.
The survey 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 international convergence in the UK in 2016.
The Next Big Step has now morphed into the Permaculture CoLab, a global permaculture entity being set up to offer assistance to local permaculture initiatives. The CoLab is in its formative phase. According to one of the UK permaculture practitioners involved, CoLab is needed because “permaculture is the only global movement that doesn’t act like one”. Many of the issues permaculture practitioners address locally are global issues necessitating international coordination and communication among permaculture organisations.

Verifiable information needed

Permaculture lacks knowledge about itself. Its practitioners say that there is a lack of information about how permaculture is practiced, by whom and where.
Statistics and narrative information that would enable us to track the spread, content, practices and scale of permaculture practice in different countries is missing, largely because there has been no organisation with the global reach to survey and compile it.  Without reliable information there is only assumption. An example is the claim that permaculture is practiced in around 130 countries and participation may be as high as three million. Another claim, made on a radio program by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute, is that permaculture is practiced in every country in the world. The problem with these types of claims is that they are made without reliable evidence. They may contain errors.
There is no agreement on what constitutes a permaculture presence in a country. If we take the presence of a permaculture organisation as evidence of permaculture activity we run the risk of exaggerating the spread of the design system. We know from the Australian experience that permaculture organisations come and go. An organisation might exist in name and have a website or social media page, but it can be inactive. Taking the existence of an organisation as the basis for claiming a permaculture presence in a country can be to make a false assumption. The same goes for people trained in permaculture. Because a person, or a small number of people from different countries have done a permaculture design course does not imply permaculture is practiced at a scale larger than the practitioner. People come and go through the permaculture milieu, making it a challenge to estimate the number of practitioners, their global distribution and the scale of practice that makes up an authentic permaculture presence in a country.
If we accept this, any information about how the design system is practiced internationally, such as that offered by The Next Big Step:  Permaculture, practices, passions and priorities for collaborative working is useful. It is the only factual basis we have about permaculture practice in different countries.
A few years ago Permaculture Australia surveyed its members to gain an idea of who they are and what their aspirations and needs might be. It was the first substantive survey in Australia since the launch of the permaculture design system with the book, Permaculture One, in 1978. Organisations like Permaculture Australia need such information to base their services on. Permaculture educators can use the data to structure their courses and identify potential students.

The CoLab survey

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

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

The top three countries were:

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

Next Big Step qualified the geographic distribution 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 of the global survey of permaculture practice are:

  • ethnicity of permaculture practitioners was defined largely by nationality, with some describing themselves as Caucasian, black or white, and others defining themselves on the basis of geographic region such as European; people classifying themselves as black or white was less helpful as both categories include a range of ethnicities
  • 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)
  • overall, there are more people 36-65 and fewer younger people (16-25) involved in permaculture than might be expected.

Gender in permaculture

There has been discussion about gender representation in permaculture social media, with some claiming that women are underrepresented 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 or works in. The true number of males and females in the permaculture milieu in Australia remains an estimate based on region and personal observation.
The Next Big Step international survey points to an approximate gender equivalence, 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 had a smaller majority. In the 46 to 55 age bracket 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 male respondents numbered around two to three percent of the total.
How much respondent figures translate to the global permaculture population is unknown. The survey, which the Next Big Step has described as a “snapshot”, might not have been a large enough sample to be representative. It is all we have to go on, however.

The individuals

Who are permaculture practitioners? The survey discloses 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; 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 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 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 was where most want 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 the 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 Next Big Step, “gives both value and limitation to its effectiveness.”
Responses to the question about what should be the priorities of the permaculture design system 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 participants see permaculture’s role in the world and its potential 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 (this appears to conflict with the “join our voices in a clear message to the world” finding above)
  • teaching permaculture as part of school studies, which Next Big Step says is most valuable “perhaps for the broad-scale impact that this option offers”.

Needed: evidence that permaculture actually works

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 can come to see permaculture in action and see that it offers viable solutions. We now have places that do this, however the response to the question in the survey suggests these are too few or too under-publicised.

The often vexed question of permaculture education

Options for standardising the PDC and teacher training curriculums were polarising with comments, NBS reports, “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 that 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 disputed in Australia. Discussion 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 early PDCs were offered) is the only valid design course. Those supporting this model said the chapter arrangement and content of Bill Mollison’s 1988 book, Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual, is 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.They claim its structure, language and tone made it a more accessible source of information.
Gaining global agreement on permaculture course content is a probably-impossible task. Strong opinions abound. Additional to any conversation around permaculture education is the existence of officially-recognised permaculture courses such as Australia’s Accredited Permaculture Training that can be offered by private tertiary education providers and TAFE colleges. It is situated within the national training scheme as workplace training. Now, Central Queensland University offers a masters degree in permaculture design.
Gaining agreement on core content for the permaculture design certificate, the community level course, may be doable, but getting educators to adopt it might be the challenge.

Gaining coherence

Summarising the findings, Next Big Step suggests where effort could be focused to create global coherence in permaculture:

  • facilitate connections between organisations in permaculture, and aid the development of mutually beneficial support structures for teaching, leadership and organisational development (these may become the role for Permaculture CoLab)
  • develop a credible evidence base for permaculture, drawing on both existing examples and investigating the effectiveness and applicability of approaches; support the dissemination of such findings to expedite real change at local and regional levels, and ultimately across the world
  • 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
  • facilitate connections between permaculture and allied organisations to enable more effective action on issues of mutual interest
  • 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. This is a reality the organisers recognise. Anyone with experience in unfunded or poorly-funded community associations or social enterprise will know that limited resources are a reality that defines what they  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. The document details the survey findings and is worthwhile reading for those interested in permaculture’s trajectory in the world and how it is perceived.
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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