PA’s Kym chats with Terry Leahy, who has been involved in the permaculture movement for more than 40 years, about his new book. The Politics of Permaculture is one of the first books to unpack the theory and practice of this social movement that looks to challenge the status quo. Drawing upon publications as well as extensive interviews with permaculture practitioners and organisations from around the world, Terry Leahy explains the ways permaculture is understood and practiced in different contexts.
Tell us about yourself and how did you get involved in permaculture?
I was in a Child Care Cooperative in the early seventies. I joined with some other people in the collective to purchase a block up the back of Taree. I am pretty sure that I read Permaculture One as a guide to the kinds of things we might do on our block. I loved it. Later on, in Newcastle, we had a large block and I was keen to use permaculture so I went up to Tyalgum in Northern NSW to do the PDC with Liz Nicholson and Peter Wade. I think that was 1996. A year or so after that I went to my first Convergence in Nimbin at Djanbung Gardens. In 2003 as part of my job at University of Newcastle, we got ten students from South Africa who were working in the rural villages there as extension workers. That led to a whole interest in permaculture in the context of food security and development.
In 2009 I went to the international convergence in Malawi and met the people from the amazing Chikukwa permaculture project in Zimbabwe (pictured left). The following year my sister and I went there to make a documentary on that.
We often see comments online that permaculture is not political, and that politics has no place on a permaculture site. How would you respond to these comments?
Well, that’s a doozy, isn’t it? I’ve been very much influenced by the second wave feminist movement. In terms of their slogan, ‘the personal is political’. Their idea is that wherever there’s relationships between people, there can be conflicts and you can talk about the politics of these relationships. So, politics is a part of any social life, and my book takes a very broad view of politics.
If you narrow it down and talk about politics as related to government, to the political process, as it’s normally understood, I’d say this. There is the famous scene from ‘Global Gardener’. Mollison is walking across a misty paddock and talking about how he used to be involved in forestry protests in Tasmania. And he realized that protests were not ‘enough’. What we need to do is to build the permaculture alternative from the ground up.
“Permaculture is just as much about system change as more obviously ‘political’ movements. But the route to that is building up the alternative. My view is that permaculture has a lot to contribute as a grass roots strategy, but also a lot of permaculture people are not seeing that as the only thing to be doing at the moment.”
What I found talking to permaculture people is that there are different approaches. Some are massively happy that permaculture is not ‘political’. They don’t like the conflictual argy-bargy that’s associated with the political scene. They want to get on with doing things that are making a difference in the world, even if it’s just one backyard at a time, as one of my interviewees said. This is quite defensible, and I explain why.
At the same time, a lot of my interviewees are also talking about how permaculture needs to intervene in the political space. For example, the initiative in Britain called “Control Shift”. Which brings together various groups, including permaculture, to try and create a way forward through political alliance.
Tell us some more about some of the topics in your book.
There’s a lot covered in the book. Even though it’s only 50,000 words, it rattles along. The book begins with the definition of permaculture. Most of my interviewees define it as a design science for environmental sustainability. And I question that and talk about various options reflected in the practice of permaculture people. The next chapter is on permaculture as a social movement. So, how does the network of permaculture people hang together and what sort of things are they doing as permaculture?
The third chapter is partly on the anti-political strategy of permaculture and how people are responding to that. The second half is about visions. Like, so if you are in favour of system change what kind of system do you want? I look at different approaches that people are following. ‘Town and village market bioregionalism’ is close to what Mollison proposes. ‘Radical reformism’ hopes for a cultural change and a change in market behaviour along with some degree of state regulation. Ethical businesses and cooperatives with an interventionist state. I found that full on anarchists and democratic socialists are very much a minority in the permaculture movement.
“Permaculture’s grass roots interventions are meant to prefigure what a permaculture system would be like if it was implemented through the whole society. I look at how this works out in practice and give a lot of examples — a lot of detail on what permaculture people are doing. And most people, including those in other movements for system change have got no concept of what permaculture is doing, in that sense.“
The final chapter is on gender and colonialism. This is about critiques of permaculture that come from within the movement — but also from outside. Some people are writing off permaculture because they think it’s patriarchal or colonialist. What is the substance of those critiques? How is permaculture responding? I hope people will find what I am saying about this helpful.
How do you see the current permaculture movement in Australia? What more could be progressing and how could this occur?
I think I am pretty happy with the diversity in the permaculture movement which probably comes through in the book. Go on with what we’re doing. David Holmgren’s recent book Retrosuburbia is just brilliant. And like heaps of what we are doing all around the world. Adding to that the first thing I’d be saying is to be realistic about what we can achieve and what we can’t. For example, what are the typical problems of trying to run an ethical business in the context of a capitalist economy? The second would be that there is a slight problem in defining permaculture as system design for sustainability. I tend to think that the definition Mollison gives in The Designers’ Manual is closer to what most permaculture people are actually doing – sustainable agriculture with a side salad of settlement design. And I think that the mismatch between the current definition and what people are doing can lead to certain problems. In terms of how permaculture relates to the broader environmentalist movement and how it relates to the left and the public. Because when people ask, “What is permaculture?” they get an answer that is hard to read.
You are a long-term member of PA (thank you!). Why are you a member & what do you see as the role of the national permaculture organisation?
I love PA. It’s great that we’ve got a permaculture organisation in Australia. Despite some difficult conflicts in the Australian movement, we have a peak body that works extremely well. The UK has got one, but the United States is still reaching for a consensus. I see PA’s role is to facilitate convergences and to promote people’s businesses and media and to help them to establish their permaculture careers. Yes, that’s what it is and it’s doing that already and I’m liking it! Obviously, I have a particular fondness for Permafund, for the permaculture in developing countries action. Which permaculture’s done very well so far and we have the scope to expand.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve been sometimes worried about writing this book. You worry about a number of things. I worry about whether I’ve been faithful to my interviewees and whether they’ll see themselves in what I write about what they say. It’s an inevitable problem for a sociologist writing about interview data. You excerpt the particular piece of interview text and then you try and relate that to other interview data and put it into some sort of framework. It can seem very far removed from what the person felt at the time. I have also been a bit worried that some of what I say about permaculture is controversial within the permaculture movement. But quite a lot of positive response to the book so far has made me less worried about this. I think people are looking forward to a book that has a go at tackling some tricky issues for us.
You can purchase a copy of The Politics of Permaculture here.
Terry is a professional member of Permaculture Australia, the national permaculture organisation. You can find out more, including how to join up as a member, here.