Ditch Dogma – Question Everything

Maranke Spoor mentioned “dogma” in relation to permaculture, research and science. More precisely she uses the term mostly in relation to techniques used by permaculture practitioners. It’s interesting that Rafter Sas Ferguson published an interesting post n this subject in March last year.

Could the “dogma” issue be related to a widespread misunderstanding of what permaculture really is? Are we confusing the dogmatic application of techniques with the skeptical application of design philosophy? And if so how did we get there?


It doesn’t help that few permaculture practitioners realise that permaculture design philosophy is a humanist philosophy, meaning it is based on the position “that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and affirms their ability to improve their lives through the use of reason and ingenuity as opposed to submitting blindly to tradition and authority or sinking into cruelty and brutality.” (Walter, 1997) The prime directive, the ethics and the design principles are a clear expression of this humanist stance. This should have excluded submitting to dogma and authority without question as a matter of fact.


However the method of dissemination and the charismatic qualities of its most popular evangelists didn’t really help convey this skeptical and common sense foundation.
Like in Ferguson’s post this takes us to the PDC as the accepted and exclusive entry point to permaculture. The format of the original PDC of 72+ hours of absorbing the master’s wisdom, spellbinding storytelling and encyclopedic nearly non-stop lectures does’t encourage independent thought and skeptical discovery. The intense group experience of an extended 24/7 stay in remote places adds to this. Well known terminology is being redefined in the course, like “swale”, “guild” and others. All of these are  indicators of pseudo-science and brainwashing techniques used by … well, organisations and practices we don’t really like to be associated with very much.

European Spring

Fortunately permaculture education has come a long way in addressing some of these issues, especially in Europe. Methods have become more conducive to constructivist discovery, addressing all senses and different learning styles. There is still much to be gained in the field of content though. A left-over from the early days is the prime focus on solutions, jumping from standard challenges to standard techniques, without a rigorous investigation of local conditions, careful observation and experimentation. We hardly see the process of permactulture design philosophy and the practice of radical imagination in action. Rather we have a proliferation of herb spirals, swales, hügel kultur beds and aquaculture tanks. It’s often easy to track the origin of designs back to a specific teacher, simply based on what elements a design consists of. That should not be possible as design should be dictated by location and resident users – from the perspective of permaculture design philosophy.

Concept/Context Approach

A way forward could be that we ditch the dogma’s – as Maranke Spoor calls for –  and adopt a new concept/context approach to teaching permaculture. A solution that is also promoted by the Dutch Foundation for Curriculum Development SLO. It’s a case based approach of learning by discovery – meaning you investigate a current example yourself and exercise your own reasoning skills, experimentation and observation to construct your own body of knowledge and skill set. Permaculture design philosophy lends itself very well to this approach, in fact that is what it was designed for in the first place.