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Some Pearls of Island Wisdom for Living Sustainably within a Small Blue Planet

Presented at the NorthWest Permaculture Convergence on September 29th 2019.

Pearls of Island Wisdom - NWPC 2019

Decolonizing Permaculture: Permaculture = Relationship

Co-written by Jose Lorenzo and Stefania Strega for the November 2015 issue of Permaculture Design Mazagine

We are writing this from colonized Benawara (renamed La Palma after the Awara people were exterminated and absorbed more than 500 years ago in the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands). In this article we mention a few of the cultural patterns we noticed we carry as colonialist people. There are many, but one way of describing several of them, in terms of how we think and act in the world, is that

  • a root colonialist attitude is to ask "what can I get out of / extract from this person / resource / situation / place, etc.?",
  • whereas an indigenous, or non-colonialist, basic attitude would ask "how can I enter into better relationship with this person / resource / situation / place, etc.?"

At one end of that spectrum is an extractive way of being, where nothing but our own wants and perceived lack are sacred, whilst at the other is a relational way of being in which everything is sacred. Where we sit on that spectrum determines whether we live more in separation, individualism and fear (which is also what fuels consumption), or more in a way that enables community & interdependence, and with those our sense of security in the world, as we reconnect to the web of Life.

Because of the critical importance of shifting collectively from an extraction to a relationship paradigm, we are delighted to see the subject of de-colonization getting some attention in Permaculture circles, and we offer our deep respect and gratitude to all the people co-creating this issue of Permaculture Design Magazine, and for the opportunity to add our perspective and what we've learned so far about this fascinating subject.

We have put social justice at the core of our life missions from a very young age, so we are passionate about deeply studying the mechanics of systemic oppression in order to understand its foundations and dismantle them.

As Latin activists living in a Latin country we have a particular interest in, and perspective on, how the globalization of the Anglo-Saxon cultural Empire is affecting us all at different levels, and how this is currently reflected within the Anglo Permaculture movement - which most people reading this article will probably identify as ”the Permaculture movement”.

De-Colonizing Bodies, Hearts & Minds

Much of our decolonization work is done within our community of students and interns, most gratifyingly with those who have mustered the trust and courage to do deep personal change work. This requires some 180-degree turnaround of deeply held beliefs installed by the Destructo-Culture, and is essential if we are to design a Perma-Culture.

We see some arrive at our farm with heavy armors of doubts or beliefs that seriously limit their enjoyment, freedom and effectiveness in the world, and leave as much more powerful designers. The most significant things they learn here are usually how invisible structures imprison us personally and collectively: essential for learning to trust our own instincts and intelligence, which is critical for real designing - creating something new and original - instead of copying others’ designs.

We learned that it's crucial to help people to not take systemic oppression personally, to notice and contradict it when it is being perpetuated, and to understand how very debilitating it actually is for individuals and communities.

Many young people, especially if they are also women and non-Anglos, are crippled by systemic oppression without being aware of it at all. This, apart from creating a lot of unnecessary suffering, represents a huge reservoir of human resource lost to the cause of sustainability - if we don’t liberate it - as all of these people long to create a more just and rational society.

The damage of oppression, coupled with the post-modernist fog under which western young people have been brought up in, plus the insecurity and confusion that comes from being deeply cut off from soil, nature and other species, means we have much baseline healing and consciousness-raising to do before we can begin to design a saner society.

It is even uncomfortable for most of us in the environmental movements to consider that agriculture might be the very origin of our “colonizing genes”.

Agriculture has enslaved us politically (it makes colonization practically inevitable) but also biochemically (by radically changing what we ate and thus the way our bodies and minds work).

There is a deeper meaning to the "bread and circuses" techniques used by all empires to keep the masses controlled: most civilized people only know the daily mood and energy swings of carbohydrate dependency.

This is our ‘normal’. But, as we recently heard a traditional shaman saying, that is an inherently separating and fear-inducing state, and the good news is that we can revert to our natural state, if we get some information and support. We have seen students who struggled with long-term depression or various addictions notice very welcome changes within a few weeks of changing their diets here.

These are experiential things, but having a good basic theory that questions our old models is essential to start the journey. We have learned that creating more effective “life rafts” and maps to navigate the choppy waters of transition is critical design work we need to be doing in order to accelerate the natural succession from “crazy civilized humans” toward “sane indigenous humans” - because if we don't radically change the models, paradigms and mythologies that we think with and we live by, we can't hope to change society very much.

This is why we have taken on the big job of widening and deepening the PDC curriculum over the last 15 years, an ongoing international and multi-lingual project that we invite all designers who identify as “integrals” (same as “de-colonizers”) to join. It includes many powerful models by a great variety of activists and thinkers which are coherent with each other as well as with the ethics and aims of Permaculture, and it is designed to be constantly revised.

But to understand what caused us to take this design focus, maybe we should backtrack fifteen years to some earlier Permaculture design experiences.

Urban Permaculture Origins

In London, a decade of activism pre-permaculture enabled Stella's group to create - between 1994 and 1999 - an early successful example of community Permaculture with a cross-cultural, multi-generational and inclusive culture and reach.

The project was called Green Adventure and it empowered people to make a difference in their neighborhoods, in their own and their children’s lives, by participating in real physical changes that impacted the local economy.

There were several interconnected projects happening at the same time. One was making organic vegetables affordable to low-income people in inner-city neighbourhoods by giving an option to pay for the weekly box partly in local currency. This also added variety, more people and credibility to the LETS scheme, which tripled its turnover during the first year of our box scheme joining.

Since the core people had been youth workers who were also well trained in anti-racist, anti-sexist awareness, our approach was to put the children's opinions and ideas at the center of the design process. This educated many adults and empowered a lot of children: we were doing liberation theology and calling it Permaculture design.

Interestingly, several Permaculture groups that copied this work didn't have much success. We realized later that it was because our (unusual) political awareness actually formed the base of our work.

An example: a project we assisted in Spain fell victim to adultism when a group of parents participating in a permaculture design course chose to disregard a design we had previously facilitated with the neighborhood’s children.

Their forest garden was subsequently vandalized, its trees damaged and stolen. It is very ironic that we tend to blame these design mistakes on “human nature”, when we know better: the Green Adventure forest gardens, despite being in the middle of a high-crime area in London, were actually protected by the children who created them.

Green Adventure also empowered a lot of marginalized people in our community through positive action.

We had a very young Chinese woman as chairperson for 2 years, our staff was 50% black, we had gay and lesbian people in leadership positions and we were mostly led by women. None of this happened by chance: it was basic anti-racism and feminist awareness designing the core structures. All of us understood what unaware exclusion looks and feels like, so we were clear about the need to practice active inclusion - something that is very difficult to explain to people who are born with privilege and never politicized / de-colonized.

The many fertile edges we created by designing-in this real diversity was very satisfying for everyone, including the more privileged amongst us - it was the source of the vitality and creativity we all enjoyed, as we were excited and energized by the realization that we were creating a different culture together.

We also trained in the inclusive meetings techniques developed by Jane Hera and Andy Langford, as our PDC curriculum included their great people-care models. We decided to study these further in order to ensure our meetings were interesting and productive, which is as critical for success as having good people on the team.

Transition to Rural Permaculture Work

Since 2000 we have been running Permaculture action-learning courses in the countryside of our Latin island culture. Since these also attracted many privileged white middle-class Anglosaxon people, it turned out to be a very in-depth study for us of how culture shapes both our perception and our learning capabilities, as well as a fascinating action-research project in how to teach Permaculture design to Westerners more effectively.

With most of these students we witnessed a quintessential pattern of colonialism play out: an attitude of “Now I’ve arrived, the designing starts”, which naturally brings with it a particular kind of cultural and historical blindness.

It makes it impossible to do the “prolonged, detailed observation” that we know all good permaculture design needs to begin with: it doesn’t matter how great our other design tools and skills are if we start with very partial data - good observation is fundamental.

Since all these skills are also best learned with protracted and detailed mentoring, we re-designed the entire teaching style to support long-term action-learning, and this, combined with the much more radical curriculum, has been a very challenging, but also liberating and enormously exciting journey for all of us.

We think it’s essential to greatly increase our pattern literacy (or models literacy: skillfully understanding and working with mental models and invisible structures) as Permaculture designers, because complex system design requires this, and good systemic thinking is key for Permaculture to be effective.

It is also equally important for us to visibly honor the contributions of women, native peoples and people of color to the wealth of knowledge we enjoy nowadays - a precious resource which is too often appropriated, usually by the white men we then think of as “the experts”.

This appropriation of intellectual, spiritual or material wealth from other creatures is another key pattern of colonialism, closely connected to entitlement (the feeling that we have some unquestionable right to have or take as ours whatever we want), which is also typical of a colonial mentality.

We playfully honor the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn as “a pre-text” for Integral Permaculture because it very cleverly dismantles the mythology and cosmology that civilized people are all brought up with. We need to be aware of the cultural air we breathe from birth (and ours is particularly riddled with big contradictions and glaring omissions of both facts and logic) otherwise, our efforts to do “alternative” things invariably ends up reproducing the same old story. We do ‘greenwashing’ instead of re-designing.

So after that great introduction, we flesh a new possible story by continuing the re-configure more of the pieces of the puzzle that Ishmael blew up for us. The feedback we get most frequently is that students gain a profound feeling of empowerment from a new clarity and consistency in ideas.

But we still have much to learn about supporting this de-colonizing transition to a more indigenous, connected and rational way of being, and we especially need more trained supporters to help with the quite difficult midwifing that needs to happen when people give birth to their new selves.

As former city people ourselves, we have learned to see - and sometimes heal - some of these things. Our daily intimate contact and mutual care with many plants and animals, living on a farm as an extended family of other species, helps a great deal. This process was accelerated by living with more civilized interns and guests and noticing the gap in our ways of thinking and being.

Our civilized lives (from “civitas”, city), with “realities” created by mass media instead of nature's cycles, create chronic separation and dis-embodiment that are deeply traumatic.

Most of us have only experienced contact with other species as pests (which we try to kill or avoid), as pets (still objectified, but in a different way), or through the horror footage of animals tortured for the benefit of industrial food or medicines. No wonder we spend decades searching for ‘other forms of life’ in the cosmos, whilst we annihilate 200 entire species every single day right here on Earth.

Our disembodied city lives have also caused a great confusion about the place of death in the wider scheme of things: most city people have never seen or heard of a “good” death, much less a clean, compassionate, peaceful and sacred “giving of death”. Instead, we have powerlessly witnessed plenty of dramatized and glamorized violence in the news and in movies, so it is easy to come to believe that death, trauma and violence are one and the same thing. Living closely with other species we come to see death as a part of the life cycle, and to associate harmony and the sacred with death, rather than violence.

Some Conclusions

At the root of our consumerist culture is a deeply ingrained dishonesty, and a cultural acceptance of dishonesty as normal. There are many expressions of this, like the focus on valuing appearance over content, creating superficial contact instead of real intimate relationship, pretending to agree instead of arguing out differences, or not even admitting to ourselves what we truly value and want. This habitual dishonesty also makes us quite blind to underlying patterns, or ‘invisible structures’.

We see that it’s easy to say we want to “live close to nature”, “have a simple lifestyle” and ‘change the world’… but then we don’t want to deal with some ‘uncomfortable’ part of nature, like rats, flies, cold or hot weather, or our dependance on comforts like fridges, daily hot showers or industrial foods, even when we have the sustainable alternatives at hand and support for dealing with these - mostly emotional - transitions.

This deep dishonesty is a pattern that native people have noticed when they come in contact with westerners - it’s often a big shock for them to realize that even the chosen leaders of a group can make promises and treaties that they don’t honor. We carry this dishonesty virus in our colonialist make-up, and it hurts us just as much as it hurts all the creatures and other cultures that we destroy with it.

Through all these experiences, we have learned to notice a series of patterns that most civilized people have, and we have learned how to contradict them in practice. But there’s a whole imperialist culture which justifies & enslaves us to these ways of thinking and being, so it is difficult to make the commitment needed to really explore them. And we really need to make that choice.

Unfortunately, collectively we also bring these same patterns to how we design our groups’ permaculture organizations. For example, we see permaculture conferences recreating the elitism and centralization we say we want to avoid, when we refuse to address the fact that the vast majority of us can’t attend international or even national gatherings - meaning they are just for the privileged few. Yet we are skilled designers: we could design our important meetings quite differently, if we wanted to, especially nowadays with all the internet tools we have. But - despite making proposals and experimenting with this for nearly a decade - we see huge resistance to taking seriously the concepts of inclusion or privilege: we just want to keep doing what we’re familiar with.

We get attacked sometimes for even mentioning these issues, so the last free online conference we organized was on the subject of horizontal hostility (HH) because we realized over the years just how very debilitating this HH virus is to our work and to the effectiveness of all movements for change. Instead of discussing ideas collectively, we individualize: people are shunned, ridiculed or attacked. Mostly HH rears its ugly head when someone “steps out of line” and challenges some unwritten rule of the destructo-culture: to the extent that we are unaware of oppression dynamics, we are co-opted as agents of its immune system, attacking each other instead of the real problems.

The bottom line is, if most of our (civilized, colonizing) mental models are unconscious, we cannot replace them with healthier ones, even when we end up realizing that they don't achieve the results we hoped for.

But we can be - and have been - successful in helping people to decolonize parts of themselves, and in starting to decolonize the Permaculture curriculum. And when we are able to remove the big barriers that block us emotionally and intellectually, then we can make the big move from copying recipes to truly designing.

Grow Local Live!

A series of interviews collected for International Permaculture Day 2013. You can find them at