Permaculture Voices 2: Reflections

Permaculture Voices 2:  Reflections

We’re two days off from when I left the Permaculture Voices Conference in San Diego, and perhaps the greatest thing for me was the immense, pervasive, encircling mass of positive energy I felt from a huge number of people there.  Everybody there is working on solutions, and the optimism and hope and community-affirming feelings of the whole conference was a tremendous pick-me-up.

I found this to be true not just on the conference level, but also on an individual level.  I do not often meet a person who makes me feel so comfortable that I can be completely open even though I don’t know him/her, and that happened to me multiple times in a 4 day span.

With that being said, here’s a quick breakdown of some things I wanted to get out there:

Learning to Read Cultural Landscapes

A lot of folks in permaculture are great designers for things on the ground.  We have a huge comparative advantage that comes solely from our ability to read landscapes, integrate those landscapes with climatic information, and to let the land reveal to us what kind of design will facilitate the greatest efficiency and gain in fertility.  This advantage is big enough that folks are starting to notice–hence Ben Falk’s post a while back about his presentation to people at USAID and their desire to acquire people with this climate literacy.

What we have not done as well in the permaculture community is to gain the same literacy on a social level.  Just as landscapes have keypoints and keylines, human society also has leverage points, geographies, and patterns that we ought to use to tailor our strategies.  Inevitably as we design for bigger and bigger problems, we bump into human organizations–boardrooms, congresses, clubs, institutions–that we need to approach and work with, and by and large we don’t know how to do it.  This is what I addressed in my presentation, which was called “Culture as Climate: A model for reading social landscapes and increasing the adoption of permaculture.”  The other title I was considering was, “How to use culture to instigate cultural change.”

I’m not an expert designer at this point–my experience has been deep, but narrow.  What I do know is culture, and I see this as a gap in our collective expertise, so I hope that the folks who attended and who listen in the future can find utility in my approach.

My Takeaways from PV2

1.  More Appreciation for the Purples

I came away from PV2 with a greater appreciation for purples.  Some of you folks might know Paul Wheaton’s purple-brown scale of permaculturalists.  I’ve always considered myself more of a brown.  But I got to rub shoulders and meet with some people that I think of as way more of a purple, and I found them to be impressive, and I learned a lot from their experiences.

It is true that permaculture needs more peer-reviewed studies, more science to back it up and to confirm what is largely anecdotes, and more experimentation on a bunch of land-based models, from the urban up to the broadacre scale, and I’m not sure it’s going to come from the purples.

That being said, it is crystal clear to me that people systems are much more difficult than natural systems–and this is where the purples excel.  The ones who know what they are doing know how to help people get along with other people, how to facilitate decision making, and how to keep community cohesive.  That is a desperately needed skill in a society where we would rather text than make a phone call because peoples’ voices are too personal for us.  So one of my takeaways from PV2 is a greater appreciation for the purples.  I’m not into your woo but I am into your social skills.

2:   Capitalism (the system now) vs. Anarchy 

Toby Hemenway’s Keynote talk was on anarchy–not on building a society without laws, but a society without rulers.  I can appreciate aspects of the vision he put forward; there are examples of functioning anarchistic villages where the people were quite happy and had a good community going–particularly in Italy post WWII (Thanks to Erik Ohlsen for pointing out those historic examples to me).

However, hanging onto that anarchistic vision directly contradicts my point from above–which is that just as climate and geography determine how we approach the land, the social and invisible structures (that are a direct result of our culture) should dictate how we approach making change happen on social and political levels.

I’ve got a much more extensive post to write on this, but my concern from Toby’s talk is it will encourage people to disengage from the society we have, which in my opinion is the exact opposite of what we need to do to build a sustainable civilization.   After some mulling in a couple conversations with Chad Stamps,  Grant Schultz, and a few others, I think there may be some useful tension in this conversation.

3:  Admiration for Many and Moving Ahead

I’m blown away by the caliber of people who showed up to this conference.  There was very little fanboyism or hero worship that I could tell, and a lot more of problem-solving, model-comparing, networking and business development, and a lot of potential for collaboration.  I’m determined to try to keep the new relationships I made with a lot of people substantive.   It would be really easy to turn a conference like this into a good time where we met cool people, but without following up and taking action it’ll just turn into happy memories.

Finally I want to thank Diego for putting on a fantastic conference.  I’m excited to see what he does next year, and hope to be a part of it.



  1. Neal, fantastic summary. Even better to meet you. All the best on your project expansion. j

  2. Another great blog! It was epic meeting, hanging & plotting to spread permaculture everywhere though I think the greatest effect you had is that NO ONE can say they don’t get enough rain now :)


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