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Where does permaculture now sit within Transition?

This week's theme on the Transition Network social reporting blog is permaculture in Transition.

I first came across permaculture without realising it. I was travelling in Pakistan and China with a guy called Chris Gwin, who lived at Crystal Waters Permaculture Village in Queensland, Australia. He lived surrounded by permaculture.

Every time we passed through a village in the mountains with cherry and almond trees I would go sketching, and he would write a postcard to his local permaculture magazine raving about what he was seeing. I had no idea what he was on about. At the end of 2 months travelling with Chris, I couldn’t have told you anything about permaculture beyond the fact that it was something to do with almond trees. And possibly cherries.

When I got back to England, my friend David Johnson gave me a copy of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture a Designer’s Manual, an impressive gift out of the blue as it is quite pricey, on his hunch that “I think you might enjoy this”. I am eternally in his debt. What he gave me was a manual of earth repair, a practical guide to conserving the habitats and ecosystems that remain, and to building new ones that provide food, fuel and fibre while also restoring the planet. The vision and the ambition of the Designers Manual were such that I still remember that initial thrill that surged through me as, over the coming days, I realised the dynamite of what I was holding in my hands.

As the years passed, permaculture became the air I breathed. I did my design course, became one of those running the Bristol Permaculture Group, and in time began teaching, first introductory courses, and then, around 2000, taught my first Design Course, which in time evolved into the fulltime course in Kinsale. I grew food, I planted fuel forests, I taught and encouraged. As I say, it was the air that I breathed.

So the question that the co-ordinators of this splendid social reporting project have asked me to look at here is to explore the links between Transition and permaculture. I guess for me, Transition was, from the beginning, seen as a kind of Trojan Horse. Becoming increasingly frustrated with what I saw as the permaculture movement holding a vitally important tool and set of insights but not seeming to be in any great hurry, either consciously or subconsciously, to share them beyond a small niche of like-minded people (something which is much less the case today but is still observable), I felt the strong need to ramp things up big time. Transition was created, as I say, as a kind of Trojan Horse, into which one could stuff permaculture, the psychology of change, etc. etc, and then manage to simply wheel it into the wider consciousness, sidling it past people who would glance over their shoulders and say “oh, it’s just Transition”.

It is a question of course as to whether we have actually managed to do that or not. Certainly I find Transition a much easier thing to explain. It doesn’t necessitate drawing pictures of chickens, arrows and greenhouses. People somehow get it faster. It is impossible to say whether Transition has managed to go to more places than permaculture has, but my sense is from places I visit and people I meet, that it has gone to different places. It has created a different language, a different ‘hat’ if you like, which is able, like our wooden horse, to trundle into different places. I find myself able to talk about ‘multiple function’ and ‘edge’ in a slightly different language, in places where permaculture would be looked at with bafflement. Perhaps it’s because Transition, for the most part, presents itself without many of the more countercultural trimmings that often accompany permaculture, and which can turn some people off from the outset?

In The Transition Handbook, permaculture principles were seen as being the foundational principles, underlying design principles if you like, shared with the permaculture movement. The Transition Companion looks at it in a different way, seeing permaculture as a ‘Tool for Transition’, one of many tools that a Transition group can pick up and weave into their work. Although the book doesn’t in any way ‘rank’ the Tools, if it did, permaculture would be at the top.

This probably tells you more about how the Transition model has been reframed, rather than how permaculture’s value or importance has increased or decreased. I do think though that it perhaps captures the fact that rather than Transition having its roots firmly in permaculture, with Transition built off that with other influences coming in later, like ornaments on a Christmas tree (as was the case in the Handbook), permaculture has become one of many tools. 

I no longer have time to teach permaculture, given the amount of my time that Transition consumes voraciously. I do miss it though, its hands-on, practical, design-led approach is powerful stuff, and I always loved the ‘lightbulb moment’ people would get on the course where it would all click in and they’d ‘get it’. It would always come at a different time for different people, but was always a joy to behold. Having an understanding of permaculture enables people to see depths to Transition that otherwise might be harder to spot, which is why it is recommended that at least one person in any core group has some kind of permaculture training. It gives an ability to conceive things as systems, to design for abundance, a diversity of yields and to assemble the ingredients a sustainable community will need in the most effective way possible. It is invaluable.

So, it would appear to me that while permaculture and Transition are two separate things, with much in common, both are stronger and more effective for standing on their own distinct turf but helping each other out and informing each other as much as possible. Permaculture is certainly much more than just almond and cherry trees, and Transition has become much more than just permaculture with knobs on. Both are vital tools for the creation of a post-carbon, post-growth, more localised world and it has been a huge joy to watch both blossom in the last few years.

Images: Pakistan sketchbook; with my class of 2002-2003 Kinsale students in front of the cob/cordwood amphitheatre we were building: the author's raised beds bursting forth at the height of the summer...; cover of The Transition Companion (published this week, 27 October); peach and apricot trees in Pakistan.

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