My name is Julie, and I am currently travelling in Scotland, visiting different permaculture projects in various places as part of a research project on the interactions between principles, values, and concrete practices in permaculture.

I plan on visiting six or seven projects before the end of June, and to write a blog article on each of them, to tell you more about my experience, and to highlight some of my key findings and/or thoughts on different subjects.

It is meant to be personal, and you may disagree with some of my opinions – I am looking forward to receiving feedback!

After spending ten days in the Scottish Borders, I headed west towards Castle Douglas, in Dumfries and Galloway, to meet my new hosts Lorraine and Uula, owners of the Hidden Mill. They bought the land in 2014 and started a permaculture project here, amidst the hills and the sheep.

The land itself is a permaculturist dream – river, woodland, grazing areas, ponds… so many edges, and so many opportunities for the wildlife to thrive. Unlike Graham Bell’s forest garden, Uula and Lorraine’s project is quite new – and yet, so much seems to be going on.

They got grants to build a greenhouse, and they also received funding to develop a children’s permaculture forest garden. It allows them to explore, experience and develop new alternatives and technologies on their land. Lorraine is currently building hugelbeds, and Uula is using his mechanical skills to fix an old tractor with a hydro system to help him build the greenhouse.

Lorraine and Karen hugging the new Hugelbed

Uula with his brand new crane!

They are also in charge of a holiday let, The Hidden Mill, formerly a 16th century mill, of which you can still see the beautiful foundations. Although it is in the middle of the countryside, far-out from centres of consumption and public transport, the Hidden Mill really is a hub of activity. There is always something happening – the first days I was here, they were receiving three families of friends to help organise the Scottish Permaculture Gathering, that will take place here at the end of June. It allowed me to interview Lusi Alderslowe, which gave me another perspective on what it means to do permaculture when you don’t have a land – on how to compromise, and ‘walk your talk’.

To be perfectly honest, it was difficult to write this blog article – I just couldn’t find the time, or the energy, or the quietness to think about it. I was having a lot of fun, meeting new people every day, cooking or going on walks with other volunteers, gardening with Lorraine, playing with the children, and doing some interviews. It confronted me with the difficulty of on-the-ground research. I got so involved in the everyday life of the place that I found it extremely difficult to step back, take a deep breath, and write.

Compost toilet and blue sky

In that sense, Lorraine’s interest in my research, and her questions, helped me. It forced me to reassess my position, my problematics, and to get out of my comfort zone to define what it is I really want to know. And what I kept coming back to, what was always at the back of my head, what I found so interesting and central was the relationship between permaculture and politics, with these questions in mind:

  • Can permaculture have a strong impact on our society if it refuses to be political?
  • What is the aim of permaculture?
  • And can we imagine a permaculture paradigm within our capitalist society?

All of these questions, I thought, were so important, and had been to some extent investigated by permaculturists like Mark Boyle. Also by sociologists like Luke Martell on more general green movements but with a great deal that could be applied to permaculture (his work has been really inspirational for me and my understanding of ecological social movements).

So my first idea, after reading and watching and talking so much about permaculture and politics was – let’s write an article on that subject. Let’s express some of my views on that, my criticisms, and then let’s find something else to talk about in the next article. Maybe the business aspect, or the artistic endeavours of some permaculture centres, or maybe something about the land itself.

I had many ideas, but every time I thought about it for more than one minute, I began to think it was also very much political, and I could find many ways to articulate the bigger questions and hypothesis I had in mind. Because for the first time, I started having a hypothesis I wanted to try out – and this meant a big difference in terms of the direction I wanted my research to take.

My hypothesis is the following – permaculture as a third wave green movement, with its strong emphasis on a philosophical lifestyle and holistic paradigm, lacks a strong political approach, which eventually will forbid the movement to go from a middle-class lifestyle to a more general model of society.

Basically, what it means is that if it refuses to take any radical political decisions, permaculture will never be more than a great, low-impact lifestyle for the few. There is nothing inherently bad about that, and I do believe in the power of strong models which can be inspirational and trigger change. I have high respect for Lorraine and Uula for instance, and their life choices are really inspiring for me as an individual. Come to the Hidden Mill one day, and have a talk with them while walking around the land – I’m pretty sure you will see what I mean.

They’ve had the strength to change their lives, to experience, to explore new possibilities, and to shift away from the consumer paradigm, and that is so inspiring. Lorraine’s favourite quote from Gandhi, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world’, perfectly reflects their position. Moreover, they welcome volunteers all year long, and host many events, therefore creating opportunities to inspire and exchange.

But I also have the deep conviction that we need a real change in the economic and social structure of our society if we want long term changes – which we need. The Trump election earlier this year, and his refusal to take into account climate change issues, is the proof for me that without a complete reframing of our political system, this will keep happening. As long as we stay within this system, there is always the threat that profit will be chosen over people’s well-being, and over environmental problems. And maybe I am wrong.

Maybe I am completely wrong, maybe we can achieve great things by focusing on our individual lifestyle, by ‘taking responsibility for [our] own actions’, by believing in the power of the middle-class to change things, as David Holmgren seems to think.

Or maybe we can reform our system and we don’t need a revolution, or maybe we need a revolution, but a silent one, one where all you can hear is the shovel and the birds and the bees. I don’t know – all I know is that I believe we can do more. Like Robert Biel says, ‘there is always, in food movements, the potential or vocation to be radical and subversive, break through dead equilibria, and open the way to social re-organising’, and I want to be more radical, and subversive, in my research and in my understanding of green movements.

I want to integrate feminism, minority rights, and class-fight, into my understanding of ecology. I want it to be intersectional, happy, powerful and angry. I want to think we can invent a new world that is not only beautiful for the overwhelmingly white, highly-educated, middle-class, but also for everyone else. I want to de-colonise environmental movements where it needs to be de-colonised, I want to take into account cultural appropriation, land appropriation, sexism, racism, ablism, classism, when I study ecology. Not just technology, green consumerism and how the few thinks the many should behave.

And it is possible, and it is necessary, for us to look at our own privilege as a social movement. For us to be aware that we have privileges, that this is what enables us to survive and to thrive within this system. As a young, able, white middle-class person, who received higher education, I have privileges, and biases. In the world as we know it, I belong to the system of oppressors, even though I spend a lot of my time fighting against it. As a woman, I also belong to the oppressed as we live in a patriarchal society. It is never so simple and the privilege system is hard to understand – we are always oppressed and oppressing at the same time, and it would need more than a few lines to understand it fully. The bottom line is – we need to take a closer look at what enables us to live the life we live.

You can invent an alternative lifestyle and live in chosen autarky only if you know how to play the system, and also if you have support from your family or partner (financial and moral), if you have had a previous career, if you have the tools and the mentality to invent and be creative and it is difficult to do all that – not impossible – if you do not benefit from some privileges.

Privileges are what enables you to have control over your own life, and many people don’t have that. I know there are many counter examples, and I would love to explore them, so if you know of any projects in Scotland please let me know!

So in the future, I still hope to study questions of progress, of modernity versus tradition, issues related to starting a business based on permaculture principles, or on the relationship of art and ecology; but also notions of inclusiveness, feminism, access to the land, relationship of permaculture and political institutions and to political movements and theories (liberalism, communism, authoritarianism and anarchy are political theories I wish to study), and many other issues I am passionate about.

It all comes down to these questions, really:

  • What is it that permaculture wants to achieve?
  • What is the permaculture project of society?
  • And does it have to have one?
  • What is the radical and subversive potential of permaculture?

Of course, I have my own biases, my own projection of society and a particular point of view on how I think that could be achieved. And I think this is what the blog articles should be about – expressing my doubts, questioning and worldviews, the process I go through during this journey.

Any researcher, professional or amateur, goes through this, and I believe it is good – for me and for you – to expose the framework of my thoughts, to let you see the challenges, obstacles and difficulties of this sort of research, and hopefully make my final analysis more precise and accurate.

In the meantime, I shall be having fun, planting fruit bushes and throwing rocks in the river!

All photographic credits goes to my fellow wwoofer and friend Sara Schmidt. You can follow her on instagram here.

To read more about Lorraine and Uula’s project, or to book a night (or more!) in the beautiful mill, go here:

Further Reading – A great article by Mark Boyle on the necessity of integrating politics into permaculture – A brief summary of what privileges mean in the context of permaculture

Sustainable Food System – The Role of the city – Robert Biel – Great book that deals with the dangers of co-opting with our current political system (among other subjects)

Ecology and Society – Luke Martell – Very inspirational book that looks at the links between our society, sociology; and environment. – A talk by David Holmgren on the aim of permaculture and the importance of the middle-class.

The views expressed in this blog article do not reflect the views, stance or policy of Permaculture Scotland or the Permaculture Association.