It’s great to see that permaculture is taking root in institutions of higher learning throughout the world. Groups like Sustainable Learning make up a growing wave of university interest and involvement in permaculture. As declining energy sources become more evident and food emergencies become more commonplace, governments will be looking to universities to find BIG solutions. Along with the hope of BIG solutions comes BIG money.

Permaculture may soon be looked upon as a potential big solution. So as we stand today on the threshold of increasing interest in permaculture, let us take a moment to discuss the potential pitfalls that come with the big money. You may think such warnings are a bit premature, but things can change quickly, and in the words of hockey star Wayne Gretzky – it’s always best to “play where the puck is going to be.” Specifically I’d like to communicate lessons I’ve learned from riding the most recent wave of societal hope in a BIG solution– the emergence and likely failure of the biofuels boom.

I’ve been working in the biofuels boom of academia for the past 12 years. I’ve seen the blossoming of biofuels research go from one researcher across the hall, to including professors from every department on campus through the availability of millions of research dollars.

The heart of the biofuels boom was the hope in cellulosic biofuels; of making gasoline out of grass—or ‘grassoline’. We were going to make a new crop, a new industry, and a new fuel, and we approached this endeavor like an Apollo mission. Specialists in grasses, machines, microbes, transportation systems, and economics all divided into designing their own part of the cellulosic biofuel system.

As all these well-meaning scientists were working hard to figure out their small part of the whole system, nobody had a handle on how all these parts would fit together into a functioning whole. The agronomists bred high yielding grasses, the agricultural engineers designed machines to compact grass into dense shipping units, and microbiologists created enzymes to turn grass to sugar.

My contribution was to estimate where the grass would be grown and at what cost. By necessity, we took data from other scientists on things like costs, yields, and time of microbe development. Because no part of the system actually existed, we had to get by on rough data. We all published papers and built careers. The media played it up, and politicians came around with great interest to talk about our endeavor in biofuels.

Everything looked good, but then the first year’s ‘grassoline’ mandate went unmet. As research continued, the second year’s mandate went unmet. Now it looks like a third year’s mandate will not be met, and there’s an uneasy feeling in the air. Could it be that something has gone wrong?

I believe that the biofuels research community is discovering the hard way that when it actually comes to putting it all together, building an energy-agricultural-industrial system is not like building a rocket ship; you can’t just bolt, for example, a densifying technology between the grassy fields and the enzyme vats. Bolts might work well on rocket ships, but they don’t work well in energy-agricultural-industrial systems.

Additionally, because the whole point of our endeavor is to create more energy than is used, the process of integrating the parts is vital to the energetic bottom line. The research community may now be discovering that these unwieldy systems cannot be quickly assembled. Yet as we look at alternatives, we see that similar systems have evolved. Our goal of creating a ‘grassoline’ production system may be more like evolving a forest than assembling a rocket ship. Ecologists now know that if we want to create, say, a Smokey Mountains ecosystem, it would not only require the bolting together of species we find in the woods or even a succession of non-extinct species, but likely a succession of species that have gone extinct through the millennia of the forest’s evolution.

The creation of a forest, or a cellulosic ethanol system, may not be as simple as a assembling a model but rather more like a dialog; a back-and-forth of trying one thing, seeing how it does, and then reacting in the next step. But when we went bravely into the biofuels endeavor, we did not think of it in such an evolutionary manner. Now after 10 years of research, millions of dollars spent, plus the spent faith of policymakers, we have not delivered.

I tell this story as a warning to the rising number of academics involved with permaculture. Whether we call it permaculture, regenerative agriculture, agro-ecology, sustainability or some other name, I believe the day is quickly approaching where big money will turn its eyes upon us to deliver big solutions. I believe big solutions are very possible, but when that day comes, we should not repeat the same mistakes as in the biofuels boom.

The problems we propose fixing are big, and our solutions will span systems. We should not simply go about doing what academics and specialists are known for—going into their perspective corners and investigating, experimenting, engineering, and inventing. That would be rocket science, not evolutionary systems science. If we are to be successful, we should realize that we cannot assemble the solutions from individual parts. We must evolve the solutions through the analogy of the dialog.

Who is the partner we dialog with? Where do we look to see if real change is taking hold? Where do we get the cues for what needs to be done next? It must be with the farmers and with the households who are using permaculture to meet and beat their bottom line.

Truly, if you want to be on the forefront of innovating permaculture systems, the best strategy is to take a permaculture class, buy 20 acres, free up some time, and then try to engineer a living. I’m very serious about the above statement—the forefront of permaculture, which is a design system that I believe has the highest potential of seeing us through the energy descent era, should be on the farm and in the households of people that are constrained by the bottom line.

So what is academia’s role in the dialog? Our highest role as academics in the permaculture endeavor should be to:

  1. Get out there and discover what the best innovators are doing.
  2. Take the best models in terms of monetary, productive, energetic, and ecological success and let others know about them.
  3. Communicate appropriate policies to policymakers that will benefit the innovators.
  4. Train as many people as possible on the basic principles of permaculture and let them loose.

Simple, really! We should allow the innovations to bubble up from the people who practice permaculture, and then communicate these grassroots solutions to others. We should mostly limit our role to one of the communicator, thus assuring that we don’t become the experts.

To be successful at evolving complex systems, we need to be clear that the experts are the practitioners, not the academics. If we approach our work with this humble belief at its heart, we can avoid constructing a new system but help in evolving a new system. As Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, elegantly stated, “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

Dr. Chad Hellwinckel
Research Assistant Professor
Agricultural Policy Analysis Center
The University of Tennessee

The following is a presentation by Dr. Hellwinckel at a TEDx event in Knoxville Tennessee on the ‘Importance of Local Food Systems.’