Penny Livingston-Stark is internationally recognized as a prominent permaculture teacher, designer, and speaker. She has been teaching internationally and working professionally in the land management, regenerative design, and permaculture development field for 25 years. She holds an MS in Eco-Social Regeneration, has 3 diplomas in Permaculture Design, and has been studying the Hermetic Tradition of alchemy and herbal medicine making all over the world.
With her husband James Stark, and in collaboration with Commonweal – a cancer health research and retreat center – Penny co-manages Commonweal Garden, a 17-acre organic and certified salmon-safe farm in Bolinas, California.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with insights including:
– That there’s a growing interest in permaculture and expanding ecological literacy.
– That permaculture “is a solution-based design system… rooted in observing natural ecosystems and how we can design our human settlements to have the same level of stability and resiliency.”
– That conventional civil engineering is turning to permaculture solutions now.
– That studying permaculture will help decision-makers to understand community economics and boost local resilience.
– That a deconstructionist involves looking at a problem backwards, “to arrive at the systemic core cause and not just treating the symptoms.”
– That a focus on regeneration is needed, not just sustainability. “We have to start giving back more than what we take, because we’ve been working on a deficit.”
Connect with Penny Livingston-Stark
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute. Our guest today is Penny Livingston-Stark. She’s an internationally recognized permaculture teacher, designer and speaker. She holds an MS in Eco-Social Regeneration, Diplomas in Permaculture Design, and is a Graduate of the Arven School of Herbal Medicine in Germany. Penny is the Co-Founder and Director of the Regenerative Design Institute. With her partner James Stark, and in collaboration with Commonweal, a cancer research and retreat center, Penny co-managed and developed the beautiful Commonweal Garden, a 17-acre organic and certified salmon-safe farm and education center in Bolinas, California. Penny co-created the Ecological Design Program and its curriculum at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. She also co-created the Permaculture Program at Occidental Arts and Ecology with Brock Dolman. She co-created the Earth Activist Training with Starhawk and she co-founded the West Marin Grower’s Group, the West Marin Farmer’s Market, and the Community Land Trust Association of Marin. She served four years on the Marin County Building Appeals Board after being unanimously approved by the Marin County supervisors. This has resulted in alternative construction methods like earthen construction, including cob and light straw clay becoming permissible in Marin County. Here’s Penny.
Hi everybody. Welcome to What Can Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, to tell us what they see on the horizon that we could cooperate with, asking them this, our core question. So Penny is the best friend I’ve ever had on this podcast. She really is a best friend. We play and work together and so this may make it a little less formal, more improvisational. We’ll see. So just a little story. Penny is a permaculture teacher, she’s an amateur herbalist, she is like the Earth embodied. One time when I was in grief about all we’re losing through our ecologically disastrous way of life, Penny ran a slideshow that she prepared for the Earth Repair Conference, about all the ways people are working with nature to regenerate the world. It was all so beautiful. We’ve both worked for decades in alternatives to industrial-scale, toxic ways of living. But in my grief about our own inability to head off destruction, even with all of our really great ideas, I moaned, “But Penny, how does this scale? How does this get any bigger than an alternative?” So here we are now and I see this as a time of crosscurrent. With the vaccines, people are going back to normal, but normal is what’s killing us. Alternatives to normal, things that Penny’s developed and I’ve developed, are waiting in the wings. So I really want to know, Penny, what you see are regenerative ways of living now scaling; not being co-opted by corporations, because regeneration is the new cool thing, but what do you really see emerging from any of your major interests? So tell us Penny, what could possibly go right?
Great. I love this question. I want to actually focus on the word “possibly”. Because anything’s possible, right? When you add that word into the question, it opens it up even more to what possibly can go right. Interestingly, because I know this is not about trying to fix things, but I am a fixer. I’m one that has been trying to fix this thing for like, 30 years now, but through education. I’ve been reflecting on the question and also reflecting on that we’re coming out of this pandemic, and remembering what happened when the world stopped. What happened to the air? What happened to the water? What happened to the wild creatures? They started coming back. The air started getting cleaner. I know we’re kind of going back to some form of normal, but I think one of the things that possibly can go right is that we’re not going to go back to normal. We’re not going to go back to the way we were. I think consciousness has changed. I think enough people got to see that, that in my world, I’m finding that people are really getting interested in permaculture. I just Googled, there’s 24 million search things on Google now. I remember Googling it when the internet first started and even then, there was quite a few. I mean, it might have been 800 or something. I’m teaching these online courses now because of the pandemic, and we’re selling out. So once upon a time, if we had 12 people in a class, we’d be like, Woohoo! Or you mention to anybody, “Have you ever heard of permaculture?” And they’ll say, “What? Is it a new hairdo? Is it gardening in Alaska?” And now, I’ll talk to perfect strangers, people that I consider mainstream humans in mainstream Western industrialized culture, and pretty much everybody has heard of it now.
There’s tremendous interest in people learning, wanting to learn how to grow food and trying to live lightly on the planet. And it has grown exponentially -literally, I’m not exaggerating – since the pandemic. I think in the pandemic, even though it’s been hard for a lot of people, what has come forward in the form of human awareness is huge. I don’t think we can put that baby back in the box again. Once people awaken to, for example, who are the essential workers, who are the people that had to keep working, even at risk in many ways during the pandemic, because we cannot live without them? They’re often the people that are sort of paid the least in society. One of the things I want to see that could possibly go right, is that these people are going to be valued more; the farmers, the people working in the shops, the medical workers, the caregivers.
Then, a lot of people that did get unemployed, I want to pose a challenge to think about, well, if the world could get along without your profession for a year or so, or many months, what does that say about what you’re doing in the world? I hope this doesn’t offend anybody, but it’s a question. If I had a job like that, I probably could have just done nothing, but the world called me and I have more students now just since the lockdown and since the pandemic than I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m getting paid 10 times better than I’ve ever been paid. So, there’s a lot of things that are going right in my world.
Maybe I am as an essential worker? I don’t know. I kind of doubt it, but as an educator, I’m helping people because people are hungry. They want to know how to grow food, they want to know how to compost, they want to know what to do with their water, they want to become more ecologically literate. Yes, where does your water come from? And people say, Oh, the municipality. No, no, no. Where does it come from? Is it coming from a well, is it coming from a lake? Where’s your water coming from? And so people are waking up to when they throw something away, where is that away? For me, it’s like a dream come true, to actually have people starting to wake up to their impact and what happens. Also a dream come true, I’ve always fantasized, what would happen if the whole world just stopped? Like in Bali, they have a holiday called Nyepi, where everybody on the whole island stops. You’re not allowed to have Wi-FI. You’re not even allowed to have your lights on for 24 hours. You’re not allowed to even cook food. People prepare food in advance. You’re supposed to just do nothing for a whole day and so if any satellite – there’s no aeroplanes going – but if there’s a satellite looking at that island on that day, it would be completely dark at night. So I’m just thinking, maybe we could start doing that? Let’s just stop for a day and see. That’s something that could possibly go right.
I have a whole bunch of questions about what you’re saying, because fundamentally, I agree with you about everything. And I do agree that the interest in growing food is rising exponentially. I know that permaculture is a systems view. It’s a systems view of a landscape. How can we work with the sunlight, the water, the minerals? How can we work with all the elements here to produce abundance? And it’s being translated; the permaculture of money, you know. It’s being translated into other energy flows. I just wonder if you could reflect on not just how permaculture is scaling sideways, like more and more individuals are trying to permit their yards or join eco-villages or whatever. But how is it scaling socially? Is there evidence of increasing commitments from cities to have a more holistic view of energy? Because a city is just a total energy suck, except for the fact that it’s more walkable than rural America. So, where do we see that scaling? Not only in the United States; they’re building these huge eco-cities in China. What’s happening out there in terms of a society system view of permaculture?
Yeah, good question. Yes, it’s happening. There’s a whole growing group called Smart Cities. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that. But there are permaculturists sitting in those groups. I’m being called in. I haven’t been called in by cities, but I’ve been called in by a number of towns. Right now the issue is saltwater intrusion. As things start to get more dire, people are going to start reaching out to find different types of solutions, because what has been happening has not been working. So people are reaching out to permaculture at that scale. A lot of times you don’t see the word. But there’s thousands of kilometers in China that have been restored. You can check out the Loess Plateau. It was documented by a guy named John Liu, who is a video guy. When I look at that, I see 100% permaculture. This is stuff we have been touting for well over 30 years, and civil engineering is just catching up.
So when you start seeing engineers applying the type of solutions that we promote in relationship to water and soil management, which is basically the opposite of what’s been taught and conventional civil engineering schools, I have no doubt it came from permaculture, because thousands – I don’t know the number of how many people have been trained in this; that would be an interesting number to find out, I don’t know if that’s possible but – it probably might be in the millions now. And they are having influences and a lot of people are on city councils. I sat on the board for my county, the Building Appeals Board. They called me in specifically because of my passion for natural building and working with non-toxic materials and loving to make mud houses. So people, they’re coming forward, and village associations and towns and schools; I’m getting called by a lot of schools, wanting to permaculturize their school. If you’re influencing children, we kind of have the long view of how are we going to affect seven generations into the future; I think, the children is where.
Totally. Okay. So I want to probe this a little further because as we’re talking on a day when I read a newspaper report that there was a building two blocks off the beach in Miami that collapsed. You look at the picture and the water; it’s now standing on sort of quicksand, it’s standing on a soup. So in terms of permaculture, in a way, we need to let those processes of nature reclaiming what we have taken. And it’s going to be really tough, because people have built their lives around a failed model of development. Now, we have to look at mitigation, because we just have to do it. You can’t just go like, “Oh, well.” But how would you apply the principles of permaculture to adaptation? Because it may mean that we just allow Southern Florida to go. And so we need permaculturists at the level of the government; somebody who can actually help us cooperate with nature, as part of this transformation. I think it’s a long shot. But I just want to ask about, you look at the global earth systems and it was like perfect permaculture before we came here.
I know. 25 years ago, I was telling people, I would never buy land in Florida, period. It’s toast. I said that 25 years ago. If you just look at the United States and you see this peninsula sticking out, it’s destined to be underwater. That’s the whole point of permaculture is that if you apply it, people wouldn’t have built there, or they would have moved. Here’s another example. Corpus Christi, Texas. They wanted me to come down and do some kind of sustainability workshop down there. It’s a foot above sea level on the Gulf Coast, on Padre Island.
I’ve lived there actually, on Padre Island.
Yeah, okay. Wow. I said, I’m going to save you a bunch of money, because here’s the permacultural approach. If I come down there, I’m going to ask one question: What’s your evacuation plan? And if I were you, I would make really good friends with Austin. Actually believe it or not, Austin the city, if you go look at their City Council, the building where the mayor is and all their offices are, it’s one of the greenest buildings probably in the world. It’s amazing. Passively heated and cooled in a city that is very hot. Anyway, that’s what I would say. And Florida, when Bill talks about that, when people don’t take the time to observe a site, or observe a community – you can apply this to social systems as well – and they just bulldoze in and do whatever they do, it’s just gonna lay waste to a lot of human effort. Every time I would hear him say that, I would think of Florida, so it’s funny that you brought that one up. If anybody’s listening from Florida, I would sell my property right now.
Right. Those folks can sell. I mean, it’s going to be harder to sell now after the building collapsed. But we’re really looking at, I’m realizing as I listened to you, that there’s such an important role at a systems level for compassion for the mistakes we made in designing a world that is contrary to nature. We’re just watching Texas, Arizona, New Mexico. We’re watching the heat just roll over. I just think, here I am with my doom and gloom again, but we have so much that we’re going to have to metabolize. Human suffering, landscapes, buildings. There’s so much that’s been put on top of the earth, that is going to have to go. It is not going to have to go because we make it go; it’s already going. So in a way, permaculture can offer us a compassionate place to stand. It’s like, Okay, I’m not just moving from Florida to Whidbey Island – which of course, people can’t because now our property is so expensive that only old geriatric rich white people live here; not naming names – but it’s not just that. If permaculture was taught at not just a local systems level but a continent level, it could offer us some roadmaps for adaptation. Are people doing that? Are people talking at that scale?
Yeah. There’s some permaculture people working in Harvard University. The universities are adopting, where some of them are developing sites. The biggest thing is a lot of people think permaculture is just about gardening tips, or it’s about land. It’s not. It’s about economy. In fact, what brought me into permaculture was community economics. I did have an elevator speech. A state senator came in one of the times when I was teaching a class, and he came late and I didn’t have time to talk to him, but I just did my elevator speech; I think anybody who’s in a decision-making capacity, whether it’s a politician, land-use people, architects, they should take a permaculture class. That was my elevator, because somebody might be running a bakery, or somebody might be having things that might seem non-related to community resiliency, are more literate after taking a training than a lot of these people that are in power, making decisions.
So that’s been my dream. I was just asked that question, if you could have your dream come true, what would it be? It would be that people in power learn this. We could cherry pick the topics, so they don’t have to take a whole 72 hour training. Even in half a day, if I could have at it, just to start getting people to think about things systemically, like you said, and how one thing can affect the other and how things are connected. Once you start going down that rabbit hole, you start understanding more deeply the impact of what you’re doing. It’s not just a building collapsing and just looking at that in isolation, it’s like, why did that building collapse, and what’s happening to create the instability for that building to collapse? And you start to look at it more deeply. That’s how you can arrive at solutions. Sometimes I’m kind of a deconstructionist; like you have a problem or what you perceive is a problem, and you can start looking at the problem backwards, then you can often arrive at what’s the systemic core cause of the problem and not just treating the symptoms?
Exactly, and that applies to polarization. That applies to politics. There’s a sort of systems intelligence where you roll back the causes and look at the essential foundational errors; what permaculture calls Type One Error. That’s the one that can’t be fixed, like that building. Exactly. Just in our last little bit, I know we should probably should have done this first, but would you do just a couple sentences about the three core principles of permaculture? And then say a little bit about how it’s different from regeneration, because I know you formed the Regenerative Design Institute. Are those terms interchangeable? Just educate us so we can go forth and be smarter.
Yeah. Well, permaculture, just in a nutshell, is a solution based design system. It’s rooted in observing natural ecosystems, and how can we design our human settlements to have the same level of stability and resiliency as a natural ecosystem? You can take these metaphors and apply them to economy and social structures, as well as land, your livelihoods. How many skills do you have? Diversity is one very common principle. We don’t like monoculture agriculture. You want to have diverse crops, so if you have a crop failure, you’re not relying on putting all your eggs in one basket. Same with livelihoods and skills. So, what was your question?
Yeah. What are the basic permaculture principles? Just to leave people with a little vocabulary about permaculture and regeneration because we never explained it.
I actually coined that term. Stuart Callan, our friend who used to be on my board, he researched and said, “Penny, you’re the first person who came up with the term Regenerative Design.” And I actually did that because I wanted something that wasn’t so esoteric, and something that was in more plain English that people could understand. The reason I chose the term regenerative, as opposed to sustainability, I don’t know if you remember Bill McDonough saying, Well, if you’re talking about your relationship and how’s your relationship going, and they say, Oh, it’s sustainable. What’s that saying about your relationship? To me, regeneration excites me. And that’s one of the things in the permaculture system, is it’s not about being less bad. It’s actually being regenerative.
At this point, to your point around adaptation and mitigation, is we have to start giving back more than what we take because we’ve been working on a deficit. We’ve been treating the earth like a bank account, where we’re just taking out money and not putting money back in. We’re doing in the form of water, we’re doing it in the form of soil, now we’re doing it in the form of our air. So we have to start giving back more. And here’s the thing: We can. We’ve got this. We could start reversing global warming by building soil, because that’s what happens. Plants are like magic at bringing atmospheric CO2 back out of the air and putting it back into their bodies and into the earth, where it belongs, where it came from to begin with, and stop doing these degenerative practices that allow the CO2 to keep going into the air. So that’s one very powerful solution. There’s soil scientists who have done the math, and they’re saying, if we increased our humus content by 1.6% on all of the arable land on this earth, we could bring the CO2 levels back down to pre-industrial levels. So we know how to do this. I mean, we could do this. Where the issue is, is in the human consciousness. It’s in education, but it’s more than just education. I focus on education, but it’s deeper than that. It’s on the human consciousness level and that’s where we have to hope that something can possibly go right.
Exactly. It’s the sort of human consciousness that comes out of not knowing that there were planetary limits, not being unaware and thinking it was all just a cookie jar and we could keep eating. So it’s consciousness, but it’s also sort of congealed systems that embody the consciousness. When you say we’re going to legalize composting toilets, it just freaks people out. When you start to work with the architecture that has been created by people who didn’t understand about waste, about soil, about property, it’s gonna be a process. What I’m getting from what you’re saying, and this is going to be my wind up, is going back to my first story about, “Well, how does it scale, Penny?” and it was really a story that comes out of grief. It’s like, Wait a second, this is how it should be, but we can’t get it through. What’s the problem? I think what you’re doing in educating individuals, they’re going to be on boards, they’re going to be in government, they’re going to be in city offices. So the more people who have – even if they don’t call it permaculture – have a systems view, who are in positions of power in this lateral spread way, we’re going to have that permacultural regenerative intelligence installed, if you will, across human systems. And the people out there will do their work or they won’t… Yeah, they are, and more of them will do more of it. So there’s a faith as an educator, that you are spreading seeds, but you’re not responsible for tending them. People are responsible for tending the seeds that they receive from you.
Yeah, exactly. In the terms of in our last session, we often have a “Where to from here?”, and it’s kind of like, “Tag, you’re it.” Facilitation skills and things like design charettes and different kinds of group process stuff, so that people can go out and start community organizing. It’s very strategic.
Right. And then, as things get more extreme, the demand side – that people won’t be pushing their big ideas on to people who aren’t interested because they don’t see the need – the demand side will increase, and you’ll have a lot of people trained, who can respond to that.
Yeah and also, the last thing I want to say is, I’ve trained hundreds and hundreds of people. Probably in the thousands, I don’t even know, I lost count. But the people that I know that have decided to commit themselves to doing this work, they are swamped busy. They’ve been swamped busy throughout the pandemic. They’re busy now. They have total job security, and it’s only going to increase. So the course has more than paid for itself for the people who have decided to commit themselves to the field.
Thank you, Penny. This is great. We’re gonna keep having this conversation forever. So thank you so much for your wisdom and your smarts and your solutionary nature and your tough bird cookie person.
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