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The association of metaphysics with Permaculture:

does it undermine credibility, or is it a return to a more authentic, integral view of the world?


Last year we ran an article on Integral Permaculture by Brad McManus which explored the thinking of Ken Wilbur in relation to Permaculture.  Increasingly the work of Joanna Macy (known as Deep Ecology) is gaining momentum in the Transition movement.  Whilst not promoting any individual path of spiritual thought and practice, these developments do suggest that man is often better enabled to make the changes needed in our time by taking account of his whole nature and honing his skills in nurturing that part of himself which cooperates better with others and builds inner resilience.

Hence the programme of Integral Studies being fostered by MWPN in collaboration with TT groups which is aimed primarily at PDC graduates, who having done the Science bit, see and experience the need to cultivate their inner gardens (Zone 00) in order to carry out the principles of Permaculture and Transition more effectively.

It was with some sadness then that I read what Craig Mackintosh of the Permaculture Research Institute, Australia, had to say on the subject of ‘mixing’ metaphysics with Permaculture. He has plenty to say about Permaculture losing credibility in the eyes of potential new recruits and the public at large if it is to be seen identifying itself with anyone who communes with trees, links hands in a circle or does anything which could be construed as New Age or spiritual in the same breath as discussing Permaculture.

Craig Mackintosh, Permaculture Research Institute, Australia, writes:

‘Man’s spirituality grants him the ability to think beyond necessity, beyond desire, so he can make decisions based on principle. Where I take issue is that people are taking their own subjective views on spirituality — including elements that are belief-based only, and therefore unprovable — and are blending it with the provable, observable science of permaculture. Teaching concepts that are not scientifically provable not only undermines that teacher’s own credibility, but, when presented in a course titled with the word ‘permaculture’, then also undermines the credibility of all permaculture teachers’.



The PRI says

“the teacher will give students a healthy understanding of the interconnectedness of all elements in natural systems and will give them the design tools to enable them to begin to work productively and sustainably with these systems. The course will inspire and assist students to embark on their own life as permaculture system designers”.


On non-inclusion of spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements as topics, the PRI says: ‘The reason these items are not included in the PDC curriculum is because they are “belief” based. Permaculture design education concerns itself with teaching good design based on strategies and techniques which are scientifically provable’.


Now although I totally agree that what is taught on a PDC should be clearly science-based and provable as far as possible, we are all inevitably subjective in some core topics. When it comes to Economics, there might be differences of opinion on the justification for how global markets operate. We know, for example, that people who support Fair Trade enterprises often disagree with the principle that goods should not be ferried around the world if they are not vital and could be made at home: these views stem from the same ethics of fair share and peoplecare held by others who disagree with shipping goods halfway across the world.  On the ‘science’ side, in the UK we are at the early stages of carrying out proper trials on polyculture yields and crop mixes, so this idea, commonly advocated on PDCs is far from scientifically proven as yet, but many respected Permaculture teachers believe it works

It is however now scientifically proven that mindfulness meditation, does help relieve stress, lower blood pressure, control pain and confer other health and psychological benefits. So a module on a PDC on sustainable healthcare, which may include meditative techniques, herbal lore etc, is not unreasonable. These approaches may be seen as rather New Age practices, but are, of course, as old as the hills – and were thought till recently to be scientifically unproven.

Already logic tells us that the boundaries are beginning to blur…


Last year we ran an inspiring article by Michelle Vesser of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in California on ‘The Wisdom Offerings of a Garden – Remembering our Way,  in which she described an event at the Center which enabled participants to reconnect with the gardens, the planet, their own vitality, and the taste of organically produced and carefully cooked food: people worked with meditation, Tai Chi and gardening to rediscover the connections between these things and their spiritual and physical wellbeing as a way into learning about Permaculture. This shows how, far from putting people off, such Integral approaches can help people to know something deeply within themselves before they are ready to simply know about it.

Some Transition groups report in-fighting, personal agendas, lack of collaborative skills, intolerance, manipulation and absence of ethical and spiritual values to be at the root of many of their problems in effecting changes within their communities. That’s where the work of Joanna Macy – the Work that Reconnects – does such good. It reconnects people with nature, with their own inner being and with each other in a way that does not promote any particular spiritual path but is, in essence, spiritual.  I think Craig is afraid of the word spiritual and equates it with the particular sets of dogma we call organised religion.

Now is not the time for fear. Now is the time to grasp the nettle and find a new holistic way to work on ourselves that accepts that we are an integral element of the systems we are studying in Permaculture. And basically we are the element that has been following the Descartian left-brain, unbalanced, ‘scientific’ path for a good long while, and in so doing screwed all the others to the point of near collapse. So hey – what are you afraid of losing?  As someone once said – ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’. Now hand me those bolt cutters…

Roz Brown

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