This article was written as a speech for the event called ‘21 Years of Permaculture at Kinsale College‘ on May 28th 2022, a celebration of “21 years of permaculture, practical sustainability and environmental living”.
I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a 21st birthday story, but it’s a lot more than that. It is a story that has its foundations in a few key principles that I want to set out before I start. It’s rooted, for example, in a belief that most people, basically, are good. It’s based on a belief that people’s natural inclination is to be curious and to learn things, but that our education system generally grinds that out of them, just as it relentlessly erodes their ability to imagine that radical change is possible.
It is rooted in a belief that change starts at the edges, and that you have to find the fertile ground at the edges and cultivate it, and from there you spread into the mainstream. It’s also rooted in a belief, as jazz musician and futurist Sun Ra once put it, that “we’ve tried the possible and failed, now it’s time to try the impossible”. Education should absolutely lead us to a place where we believe that anything is possible.
Above all, this is a story about how one thing can lead to another, and that there is genius in the moment where you decide to do something, and that you can never know where that thing will take you, what it will inspire, what revolutions it might spark. It’s about what I later came to call ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. It’s a story that starts on a summer’s day in 2001 in the office of John Thuellier, who was at the time the Principal of Kinsale College in south west Ireland.
I’d gone to see him with an idea. My friends Belinda and Ian taught Drama at the college, and I had been exploring with them the idea of taking the permaculture course that I had then been running one night a week as an evening class at a college in Skibbereen and turning it into a day time course. “You should go and talk to John”, Belinda had said. John was considered a bit of a maverick in adult education in Ireland at the time. Kinsale College was home to the drama course, and also to a sculpture course, an art course, filmmaking and an outdoor education class. It was lovely, loved and buzzing.
As I sat in John’s office, I laid out my idea for a year-long permaculture course, based at the college, which took the syllabus of the certified Permaculture Design Course, but embellished it, and added a lot of practical activities too. He had never heard of permaculture before, but something about the idea appealed to him. “How many students would the course need in order to be viable?” I asked him. He replied that it would need about 14, and asked if I thought that that would be possible.
Three months later, after a lot of telling people about the course on other courses I was running at the time, including the high profile building of a strawbale house at Mallow racecourse, and leaving flyers everywhere, the first intake of the ‘Practical Sustainability’ course arrived for their first day, the Class of 2001! There were 25 of them. It was so exciting.
In order for the course to be possible, I had had to, over the summer, write the Irish Adult Education system’s first approved modules in Permaculture Design, Natural Building and Sustainable Woodland Management. We had to make this road by walking it. The students who showed up were of all ages, from all different levels of educational experience, but all were hungry for a course which, it seemed, they had been waiting for for a long time.
Shortly before the course started, I got a copy of a book called ‘The Manual for Teaching Permaculture Creatively’, by Robin Clayfield and Skye, and did a course of the same name, and learned a whole new approach to teaching, based on games and play and different ways of learning. I was given the freedom to design the permaculture course I would love to have done. If you laugh and get to play with others while you’re learning, you actually learn more with a brain awash with endorphins, as it turns out. It also turns out that you retain far more information when you do as well as listen. Who knew?
John had a beautiful approach to managing people. If the last thing you had done worked, then chances are you’d get the thumbs up for the next thing you wanted to do. And so the lawn surrounding the College rapidly disappeared under trees, mulch, willow domes and vegetable beds…
We built a strawbale and cob-hybrid shed…
We hemp/lime plastered our classroom…
We went on many visits to different projects across the south of Ireland…
The second year of the course filled up very quickly and from then on, that was how it was every year. I taught it for 4 years. Here are the group photos for the second, third and fourth years I was there (I have turned my house upside down looking for the photo of the first year’s students but I can’t find it…).
I met so many amazing students. Their permaculture designs for the College were beautiful and their love for, and connection for the College was heartfelt. John’s management approach came into its own when, in 2003, I went to see him with, literally, a sketch on the back of an envelope for a theatre we wanted to build in the grounds of the College. The idea was to create a theatre, inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe, built from all local materials, in such a way that students from all the courses could play a role. He gave it the thumbs up and next day we pulled down the bike sheds and we were off.
It took us a year and a half from drystone foundations to turf roof. The opening night of the theatre in May 2005, when the Drama students performed ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ on their just-completed theatre, was one of the most magical nights of my life.
In my last year in Kinsale, we had added a second year to the course. That year I set the students a project to design for the town an intentional pathway to move away from its dependency on oil. Their work was amazing, so I pulled it together in a small booklet called ‘The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan’. The copies all sold very fast and then it went on to be downloaded many thousands of times online. At this point I left Ireland and moved to Totnes, where I still live, so the story of the course and what happened next is best told by others.
Amazingly, firstly under the stewardship initially of Graham Strouts, then Donal Chambers and others, that pioneering course is still here, still training the next generation of permaculturists. There are now thousands of stories that could be told of what that course has inspired people to do, and what that inspiration resulted in. There are buildings, businesses, projects, all sorts of things that exist thanks to that course. There are also babies! I’m sure many of you here today will have your own story of where this course took you. But I want to share the story that I’ve seen.
While back in Kinsale, Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne were taking the first steps towards the creation of Transition Town Kinsale, in Totnes, my new home, a small group of us were doing the same. We formally ‘unleashed’ Transition Town Totnes in September 2006 and within months, interest from around the world in replicating what we were doing became so overwhelming that we had to create a new organisation called Transition Network to support it. There are now thousands of Transition groups in over 50 countries. That sense of playfulness, self-organisation, trust and care that was designed into the DNA of the Practical Sustainability course is now also in the DNA of the Transition movement.
To share a few concrete examples of what the Transition movement has led to. In the city of Liege in Belgium, they are reimagining the food system of that city, have created 27 new cooperatives and raised over €5m of investment from local people. In Grenoble in France, the municipality, inspired by Transition and who have created a network of ‘Cities in Transition’ with other similar-thinking municipalities in France, are doing many amazing things, including building 9 storey social housing using local timber, straw and clay.
Local currencies, an idea suggested in the Kinsale EDAP, now exist in over 60 French towns and cities. In Wellington in the south west of England, the Transition group is transforming local land use, creating ever-larger forest gardens and food forests on public lands. Transition groups are creating community energy companies, many of which then go on to raise many millions of pounds of local investment for renewable energy projects. Many start new local food infrastructure: market gardens, CSA farms, new food markets, food gleaning initiatives, new cafes. Many people come through Transition and then go on to get involved in local politics, even become local Mayor and national political figures.
In Marseille in France, the city council are buying land all around the city to grow food for an entirely new model of how they will feed local schools and hospitals. In Japan, Transition groups were very involved in the emergency response after the tsunami and nuclear disaster. Groups have built food gardens in streets, started repair cafes, amazing community arts projects, community orchards. I could go on. And on.
The question that sits with me is how much of that stuff would have happened if that day in 2001, John Thuellier had said no, had smiled at me nicely but said “no, sorry, no-one’s going to want to do a course in that”? Perhaps it would have found a different vehicle to express itself through. But having been part of that journey from the start, I have come to believe that taking bold steps has an untapped potential power we can’t see at the time, but which we would do well to consider as possible. The futurist Jim Dator once said “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous”. The idea of this course was a ridiculous idea, but look what it led to!
I was in Marseille recently at a big Open Space event. Open Space is a technique I first discovered when, with Thomas Riedmuller, we co-facilitated an Open Space event in Kinsale just from having read about it in a book.
We did quite a lot of that. “I just read a book on clay ovens. Let’s build one!” We applied the same approach to Open Space. As the first punks would say “here are three chords, now form a band”. I love that spirit of being open to trying, and to failing. But the trying bit is the most important part.
Anyway, I was recently at this Open Space event run by the newly-formed Marseille en Transition. I told them “imagine that in 10 years from now, a blue plaque will be put up outside this building to mark the impact that the ideas that were formed tonight had in shaping the future of this city”. I think we need to think like that more often.
A few years ago I met a Transition group in a neighbourhood of Berlin who had created a community orchard in their local park which everyone told them would be trashed by vandals (it wasn’t). A year after they planted it, their local council passed a resolution, inspired by that garden, that everything they planted as a council would henceforth be only edible plants. That moment when that group decided to plant those trees had a power and a potential in it that they couldn’t have known at the time. But perhaps our activism will feel more strident, more grounded, more hopeful, if we can feel the hand of the future, the hand of history at the small of our backs in that way.
There is a famous TED talk by Derek Sivers where he shows a shaky, grainy video filmed at a festival. In a field full of people sitting down, one crazy shirtless guy man stands up and starts to dance. After a minute or so he is joined by another person, then a couple more, who dance with him. Within another minute, the screen is full of people dancing. The point Sivers makes is that the most important people in the story are not the first dancing guy but the first people to start dancing with him. As someone who often plays the role in the world of being that crazy shirtless guy, I am forever grateful to those people like John that get up and dance with me. Metaphorically speaking.
As the years pass since I was a teacher in Kinsale, I become more and more aware of what a remarkable space it was. The trust that was put in me to innovate and create things was something unimaginable in the education system of 2022, in the UK at least. I had complete freedom in what I taught and how I taught it. We would spend whole days playing games in the forest. We spent a day making models for how we’d like the theatre to be using clay and sticks.
To revise what we’d done over the 3 months up to Christmas, we roleplayed a TV quiz show and each team wrote the questions for the other teams. We visited forestry projects, reed beds, strawbale houses. We roleplayed a public inquiry for an incinerator, using the Drama course’s dressing up box.
When we were building the cob walls for the theatre, the students were known in town as the ‘mud people’, as they headed into town to buy a sandwich at lunchtime covered in mud. I have so many great memories of my time there. I think I learned more than the students! I love the quote from John in the article at the start of this presentation, where he says “sometimes we can’t get people out of here in the evenings”, referring to how some days when we were working on the amphitheatre, students got so into it, they would have carried on late into the evening if they’d had the chance! That’s what education should feel like. It is such a shame that we have accepted as normal the fact that education so rarely feels like that.
I travel to France regularly to give talks and workshops. In France there is a network of highly prestigious business collected like HEC, ESSEC and others, who train the next generation of business leaders. They were set up after World War Two to drive the economic revival of France. I feel that today, in 2022, as we stare into the eyes of a huge food crisis, an energy crisis, a cost of living emergency, as all the ‘chickens’ we discussed on this course back in 2001 come home to roost, what we actually need is a network of colleges like Kinsale. The most prestigious courses should be those that teach people the life skills for resilience, how to grow food, save energy, build stronger communities, work better together, build things, repair things. They should be far cooler, and more prestigious, than the business schools. Kinsale can show them how to do it. That’s so so precious. Never underestimate it.
So I want to wish the Practical Sustainability course a happy 21st birthday. It is a mighty thing indeed. Thank you to everyone who helped it into existence and has nurtured it since. The NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus was recently asked what gives him hope. “The fact that we’ve barely tried yet” was his response. That applies as much to the education system as to anything else. This is a climate emergency. The idea of a permaculture course that might go on to change the world would have seemed a completely absurd idea that June day in John Thuellier’s office. But as Naomi Klein says, “there are no non-radical solutions left”. May this course forever be a catalyst for those solutions. Our work is generational work, so see you at the 50th birthday party!