Can Social Permaculture Change the World?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
-Margaret Mead


Small Groups Can Indeed Change the World—

—but to do so, they must work together effectively and nourish their relationships. Sadly, there’s a pattern that repeats again and again: a group of people come together excited to do work to change the world or create something that inspires them all. In the beginning, all goes well…

…then conflicts arise.

Sometimes deep divisions and power struggles erupt. Other times, people just quietly fade away. A brilliant idea, an exciting project, a community in which people have invested emotionally and financially withers and dies.

For decades, I’ve worked in small groups, from permaculture guilds to activist organizations to group houses, and experienced plenty of conflicts and breakdowns, as well as wonderful moments of joyful collaboration. I know the negative patterns can be changed. 

If we identify the conditions that allow groups to thrive and flourish, we can consciously design them into our group structures. We can commit to learning and practicing better communication skills and using conflict resolution tools. We can seed our groups in healthy soil, and create movements that are truly inclusive and welcoming to all of us, in the full complexity of who we are. And when we do, all of our important work becomes more effective.

What is Social Permaculture?

“Social Permaculture” is a term that has become more prevalent in the permaculture world to describe all the aspects of people-care and group dynamics that go beyond the garden and the food forest. 

But perhaps I should take a step back and say that “permaculture” is a global movement based on an approach to ecological design with an ethical framework, that takes nature as our model. By understanding the principles of how nature works, we can create systems—whether for food growing, shelter, or social projects—that meet our human needs while regenerating the environment around us. 

Permaculture began with an approach to agriculture that draws on much indigenous wisdom and traditional practices, but puts them together with systems theory and agro-ecology. However, as it has expanded into a worldwide movement of practitioners and teachers, it has grown to encompass the idea of permanent culture.

Culture is inherently social—it encompasses all the ways we connect, communicate, co-create, and clash.  The dominant culture is toxic in so many ways, from underlying structures of oppression such as patriarchy and white supremacy, to its focus on competition and individualism over community. 

But can we actually apply principles of design to changing these structures, both in the social landscape and in the ways we have internalized them? Do the patterns and principles we find in nature have guidance for us in creating social change and building new institutions? 

Social Permaculture as a Solution

These are the questions that social permaculture asks, and to address them we draw from many fields, from psychology to sociology to theories of group dynamics and organizational structure. A social permaculture course might range from exploring how we connect across the barriers of diversity and historical oppression, to how we resolve conflicts in groups, to how we can structure organizations to encourage creativity and collaboration. It is useful for anyone who works in groups: permaculture guilds, activist groups, spiritual groups, co-housing communities, community organizers, friendship groups, even personal relationships.

Our social permaculture courses are interactive, focused on learning skills and tools and practicing them.  We use exercises, games, and projects to bring out patterns of communication, and provide support for self-reflection. We address the larger cultural patterns of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, class divisions and more, in a spirit that asks us to redesign patterns of relationships so that we can connect, share, and celebrate more deeply. 

And we ground our work in a deep, spiritual connection to nature and one another.

Of all the work and teaching I do, social permaculture is perhaps the most vital, because it offers tools to make all of our work more successful and joyful. In these times of chaos and crisis, we need effective groups that can make change. And we need places of support and nurturance that can feed us as we work for a world of justice and resilience.

If this sounds like the kind of solution you’ve been seeking, join Pandora Thomas and I at our Group Leadership and Empowerment Social Permaculture Intensive: April 9-13th in Northern California. 

5 comments to Can Social Permaculture Change the World?

  • ptery lieght

    Has of living at Standing Rock from Samhain to Bridget’s day, both spiritual bookends for me. I landed in Hot Springs, permaculture gathering and spent the winter in a yurt.
    It occurs to me strongly that a part of permaculture is connecting and healing historical traumas. Especially evident to me as Hot Springs exists on the reservation. A Native man living here took courses from Bill Mollison himself, yet is challenged to work with local whites, as there are little to no native farming, instead, fishermen and hunters. and of course gatherers, like Finisia has shown us.
    So it has been increasingly important to have reparations in mind as a key part of soil repair.

  • willamettevalleywitch

    Hello Starhawk,
    I want to tell you how much I appreciate and am inspired by your work. I am moved by it more, I think, than by almost any other–and that’s from someone whose main companions were books for many years! I grew up in a very repressive, fundamentalist patriarchal Christian setting which I finally left in my early adult years, a few years back. During my years of trying to reconcile myself with those harsh beliefs, I had a few experiences that at the time I called ‘God’s Love’, but that I now tentatively identify as brushes with my own self-protective instinct or the touch of the Goddess.

    Sometime after I left organized religion and after I had been helped for some time by the women’s spirituality movement, I encountered your work and I want to say what a genuine breath of fresh air it has been to me. I do try very hard not to mindlessly follow prophets anymore, but more than any other I do feel that you lead me back to myself…
    I appreciate your humble and equity-oriented approach to spirituality–in the New Age movement it is common to find excessively elevated or dismissive points of view and I never see that from you. It is tempting to read ‘Walking to Mercury’ and see a bit of autobiography which you have probably not intended–yet if Maya’s story is in any way also yours: the wordless thing which you brought down from the mountain has spoken through you, a thousand times over. And thank you for it.

    P.S. I do truly hope that you might publish some sort of autobiographical work at some point!!

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