Permaculture & Social Justice: Kim's Story

Image by Franziska Wernsing.

Image by Franziska Wernsing.

This article was originally featured on The Nettle's Guild website. 

It was roughly one year ago that I made a commitment to permaculture. It was a commitment that did not come easy to me. I still feel a shudder of doubt and embarrassment even to say these words to myself. It was a commitment born out of frustration and of hope.

Some may ask what the heck permaculture is, and I would not be surprised. At its core, permaculture is a design toolset made up of a number of regenerative landscape practices such as soil building and rainwater harvesting. Ultimately, permaculture seeks to work with natural system rather than against them. These practices have deep roots in Indigenous ways of life, but have been repackaged and rebranded as “Permaculture”.

My journey to discover permaculture has been bumpy. After finishing my degree in Environmental Sciences I found myself disempowered and depressed. I often felt the environmental movement’s greatest failure was to create a dynamic of shame, erasing humans from the picture. It terrified me with stats and figures and instilled in me a deeply seeded shame that crippled me from interacting positively with Earth. True to its capitalistic origins, the environmental movement sold me solutions to the environmental crisis that were entirely based on removing myself and all humans from the picture. Reduce. Minimize. Sustain.

I left university with few ideas of how I was supposed to live my life, and guilt ridden over my species oppressive forces over the planet and each other. I was attracted to permaculture as a way to engage with Earth in an empowering way. In a way where I could heal my shame, and take actions that could help to heal Earth and the communities that call her home. Permaculture presented to me an empowering toolset. Tools rooted in the natural world that help guide me to living a just and abundant life. Tools that have helped me along my path of decolonization and rewilding.

However, I also found myself horrified by the lack of understanding within the permaculture “movement” of how social and oppressive systems are embedded in the work we are trying to do. How is permaculture meant to create change if it does not understand how these oppressive systems can pervert our good deeds into more acts of violence? How can permaculture stop perpetuating cycles of theft and oppression unless it also utilizes social justice and anti-oppressive principles? Since permaculture’s origins are rooted in Indigenous knowledge, to use them freely could constitute an act of cultural appropriation. Unless steps are taken to not only recognize the origins, but to also actively seek liberation and decolonization, it is in itself an act of violence to freely use the practices outlined within permaculture.

Last week I found myself shuffling through a deck of Permaculture Playing Cards; cards with the notable figures, or  the “royalty” of permaculture, featured on one side. As I flipped through I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the sheer number of white men staring back at me from the front of the cards. In total there were 9 white man cards to the 1 white woman card and 1 person of colour (male). Those seem to be my odds in this world: 9:1. 9:1 that my stories, knowledge and achievements might be acknowledged.

Image by Stuart Higgs.

Image by Stuart Higgs.

Is it that there are just no women, doing this work? What about trans, queer and/or people of colour? The answer lies in the negligence of permaculture in tackling these oppressive forces that prevent groups other than the most privileged to be given positions of prominence. Given permaculture’s origins, we should be looking to the most marginalized and oppressed groups for guidance on how to steer the way through the nightmare that has been created under a white-heteropatriarchal regime.

It has been important for me to learn how to most effectively use permaculture by understanding the difference between permaculture as a toolset, and permaculture as a movement.  As a toolset, it seems to answer so many of the questions I find myself asking. As a movement it lacks the analysis of the social systems that prevent me from actually making the change that permaculture tries to enact.

When I realized the difference between the two, the solution was simple. I decided to see if I could connect together the empowering toolsets arranged in permaculture and the models of deconstructing oppressions found in social justice movements; specifically feminism and decolonization. Suddenly I felt empowered enough to share my thoughts. I decided that I needed to organize a permaculture design course that also incorporated these notions of justice.

Image by Eliduke.

Image by Eliduke.

I also realized that I was not alone in this struggle. The more I looked into my community the more I found myself inspired by the nuanced and creative projects happening using permaculture practices. I found myself deeply inspired by the works of folks such as Erin Innes, Pandora Thomas, and Kelsey Cham Corbett to mention only a small few. I was also joined by my partners Alicia Tallack, Erin Pickell, and Stuart Higgs. Together we created the Nettles’ Guild, a collective of workers and activists using permaculture inspired education and design to be wild.

Roughly one year ago I made a commitment to share a version of permaculture that was deeply rooted in the social justice movement. To share the stories and the vast wealth of knowledge stored in my communities. To hold space for women, trans, queer and/or people of colour as best as I can using my own privilege.