an elevator speech for 'permaculture'

I have taught permaculture for several years, guest-teaching in other people’s permaculture design courses (PDCs) and running my own. And yet when people ask me what ‘permaculture’ means, I often still falter when trying to scrape together words to quickly present what I spend all my time doing.

It’s challenging to put complicated ideas into a short sound bite. Much of what I love about permaculture are its broad-reaching implications and infinite permutations. Permaculture isn’t just “a method of gardening” (often how I hear it discussed). Permaculture informs us about the ways we might educate our children, work out our conflicts, invest our money. It can serve to help us puzzle through complex, systems-level problems. It challenges us to seek long-term, collaborative, creative solutions. I love permaculture’s wide array of uses and feel myself shrinking back from limiting permaculture to one quick definition.

Many permaculturalists struggle with how to summarize permaculture. I have attended the wonderful 'Women in Permaculture' conference that happens at the Omega Center every year. Two years ago we spent much of our precious time together discussing the need for and “elevator speech” – an accessible way to present permaculture to those unfamiliar with the movement. Needless to say, we didn’t get around to creating one.

We may also shy away from trying to agree on one succinct explanation of permaculture because of the nature of permaculture itself. We know that permaculture must be, due to its nature, of and for each specific place and person who implements it. We want to allow it to take on a local flavor and use and don’t want to box it in to what it “should” look like everywhere.

I do not want to prescribe what applied permaculture will look like everywhere. But I do want to suggest that not sharing more of an easy sense of how to present permaculture to the wider world may be holding permaculture back from gaining broader traction. Toby Hemenway has a great article extolling the importance of naming what permaculture is and isn’t, in order to not allow permaculture to spiral out of control, cult-like, gobbling any good idea in its path and naming it “permaculture.”

We must speak with simplicity and clarity to a world unfamiliar with our jargon-heavy language. How can we work together to find clear language that invites others in rather than keeping them out? How can we name the work we want to do so that others can easily see what kind of tool permaculture is?

Mollison (one of the people who coined the term) says permaculture “is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.” While I don’t disagree, ‘sustainable’ has lost much of its meaning. His definition falls short of naming the importance that justice has in permaculture design. [You can read through other folks’ offering their definitions here.]

When I think about the core of permaculture, I look to its ethics. The ethics of 'earth care, people care, and fair share' are the pillars on which all of permaculture rests. And so, when people ask what my work is, I say, “Permaculture is a system to help come up with creative solutions. It is a tool that helps us solve problems in ways that are good and just for the earth and are good and just for people.” That’s it. I'm trying to drop jargon-y words like “regenerative” that have little meaning to the wider world and start getting specific, simple, and clear.

This little pitch is truly what I think permaculture is, and any strategies that might emerge from it (like community schools, rain barrels, co-housing or urban tree planting) are simply solutions people have come up with while using the system. Permaculture isn’t the answer. It’s just a tool for figuring out good solutions.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on how you explain permaculture. I welcome feedback or critique; I hope to use this blog as a way to puzzle through my own questions and gain community around this work!