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Research as Social Permaculture

While permaculture is extensively practiced worldwide, formal documentation of the sort that could inform policy is limited. Data on the impacts of permaculture are scarce. This limits both its capacity for critical self-evaluation and its ability to provide robust evidence to policy-makers and other interested stakeholders. Changing this situation is crucial if permaculture is ever to realise its full potential to contribute to creation of a fairer, more humane and sustainable society.

Permaculture is inherently experimental, based on designing and testing out practical solutions to existing problems. A key feature is action learning: reflecting and critically assessing the outcome of any intervention, and taking this into account in subsequent action. Through teaching and writing, this learning spreads to the wider permaculture community. In this way, permaculture practitioners worldwide form an informal global action learning community.

Resource limitations severely constrain practitioners’ capacity for self-documentation and self-evaluation. Permaculture projects and organisations with whom I have collaborated over the years consistently report a need for more and better research on their work. Needing to prioritise practical outcomes when allocating scarce labour and funds, few are resourced to deliver this themselves.

As this community grows in number and capacity, the permaculture movement worldwide is starting to take responsibility for its own documentation and evaluation. Academic researchers in applied fields and wanting their work to contribute to meaningful social change have highlighted the affinity with permaculture. The frequency and sophistication of collaborations between researchers and permaculturists are increasing, and more people combine formal academic qualifications with training in permaculture.

Formal academic studies have increased in recent years, but are still small in number relative to the size of the movement. Often a clash of cultures restricts collaboration between permaculturists and professional researchers whose horizons are limited by concerns with academic prestige, intellectual fashions, and the requirements of conservative funding regimes. This is an instance of the permaculture principle, “The solution is in the problem”: it reveals ways in which permaculture can help research become more relevant and effective.

My own work in this area, developed through numerous designs, projects and academic articles, explores the use of social permaculture as an approach to the design of participatory research projects, where researchers and practitioners collaborate on an equal footing. By identifying opportunities for bringing different interests into synergy, it creates what permaculturists refer to as an edge: a site of mutually beneficial interchange and co-creation between research and practice. This transforms research from a monoculture, concerned only with the pursuit of academic status, to a polyculture of collective action towards common goals that produces diverse intellectual, social, practical and personal yields. The Communities for Future Knowledge commons, co-developed as a collaboration between Lisbon University Science Faculty and the ECOLISE network of European community-led sustainability initiatives, offers a general framework to support integration of such approaches into the heart of research collaborations.

1 Sears, E., C. Warburton-Brown, T. Remiarz & R. S. Ferguson, 2013. A social learning organisation evolves a research capability in order to study itself. Poster presentation at the Tyndall Centre Radical Emissions Reduction Conference, London, UK, 10th – 11th December 2013.

2  Veteto, J. R. & J. Lockyer 2008. Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability. Culture & Agriculture 30: 47–58.

3 Lockyer, J. & J. R. Veteto (eds.), 2013 Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture and Ecovillages. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

4 Scott, R., 2010. A Critical Review of Permaculture in the United States. Self-published Article. Accessed June 11th 2015. The author’s experience trying to publish this paper – rejected several times by peer-reviewed journals on the advice of reviewers from the permaculture movement – reflects how permaculturists as well as academics perpetuate this divide.

5 Henfrey, T., 2014. Edge, Empowerment and Sustainability: Para-Academic Practice as Applied Permaculture Design. In The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting. London: HammerOn Press.