Could we be better at valuing the marginal and integrating a more diverse range of cultures & perspectives into the permaculture community?
During the last four years I've help to instigate, co-design, secure funding for, and support the co-ordination of a wonderful project called the European Permaculture Teachers' Partnership (EPT).
The aim of the project was to provide a support network for teachers across Europe, many of whom were working in quite isolated conditions. The project was to provide a forum for these teachers to exchange teaching methods & course curricula and see examples of good permaculture practice by visiting local projects. Meanwhile, comparing organisational structures of national permaculture associations & institutes was to provide inspiration & encouragement to those countries that lacked such organisations, so that they would feel better equipped to establish them. Learning materials would be translated to hasten the spread of permaculture in other languages. Finally, a discussion on how to widen participation was to examine questions of how to make permaculture accessible to a wider audience. In effect we wanted to accelerate succession in the European permaculture education ecosystem.
The project has been extremely successful. During the two-year funded phase of the project we held a series of seven week-long gatherings; over 150 participants from 23 different countries met with peers and discussed various aspects of permaculture education. Two new national permaculture organisations have been established with a third on the way, a new diploma process has been designed in one country, and an older, less functional one revisited and overhauled in another. One of the partner organisations has gone on to secure further funds for transnational teacher development activities.
An Emerging Culture
The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive and at times deeply touching, describing how the project has changed their lives for the better, made them feel more connected and how we have created a new family. Indeed, during the project a strong culture emerged that connected many of the participants on a profound level.
This culture emerged largely as a result of the contributions of participants, who were invited to facilitate, lead sessions and activities. This was a learning journey for them and I'm deeply grateful to them for their contributions and commend them for their courage in stepping outside their own comfort zones to take up the challenge.
This culture was characterised by a lot of standing in circles, sometimes holding hands, often being encouraged to close our eyes and be led in a guided meditation or grounding exercise. At other times, tools from Joanna Macy's Work That Reconnects were used, such as The Milling where participants are encouraged to move around a space making eye contact with others as they pass until they come to a standstill facing someone else. They were then asked questions that encouraged them to share intimate thoughts: "what are your dreams?" etc.
Another significant feature of the culture was singing. Often we were all encouraged to sing together, often singing songs in rounds. Sometimes we were led in a call-and-response song where the responsibility to sing the call part passed around the circle, so that everyone had the opportunity to sing solo in front of the group.
The final celebration took the form of a ceremony where everyone was asked to walk through a door into a garden: on passing through the door they had water sprinkled on them, and a mud bindi applied to their face.
These exercises and rituals are undoubtedly powerful. And they are important tools for those looking to foster deeper connections with others, seeking an inner transition, or hoping to add a spiritual dimension to an experience. However, after reflecting on the widespread use of them in the EPT, I'm left wondering if we should have explored issues of diversity & inclusion, because aspects of the culture that connected many of the participants also marginalised and excluded others.
One attendee climbed out of a window to avoid participating in the closing ceremony, another was clearly made to feel deeply uncomfortable when he refused to join in. Later conversations with others revealed that they went along with these activities because of peer pressure, but they found them uncomfortable, embarrassing or just "didn't get it". At other times during the project other people discreetly slipped away when things started to get "a bit too hippy-ish".
I also tend to feel uncomfortable with these kinds of exercises, but during the EPT I generally went along with them due in part to peer pressure (more on this later), and in part because I didn't want to damage the confidence of any trainee facilitators by making a big fuss in the middle of their sessions. Even so, on the last night of the project I found myself hiding behind a pile of straw bales to avoid yet another face-painting ritual, and then quietly slipping away to avoid the final party in case there was more of the same.
EPT Participants can be forgiven for bringing this kind of practice into the culture of the project. In the eight years I've been around permaculture I've seen it crop up regularly at various permaculture gatherings and teacher trainings. And some people seem to be integrating quasi-spiritual practices with Permaculture Design Courses (PDC). But again and again I also find myself in conversation with people grumbling about how they feel uncomfortable with - or embarrassed on permaculture's behalf because of - this stuff.
When I've broached the subject of my own discomfort with the people who are enthusiastic about rituals, group meditation, singing etc, I'm met with a range of responses. Some people acknowledge that these kinds of activities need to be very carefully considered before their inclusion in a programme. But I've also received a kind of knowing, sympathetic look and words to the effect of "Oh, you haven't developed your spiritual side yet".
This implies that any truly holistic understanding of permaculture is contingent on integrating some form of spirituality into your life. Having spent many years contemplating my own spirituality and consequently becoming a humanist, I don't agree.
I also believe that it's counter to the original intentions of Bill Mollison (a scientist) & David Holmgren (who self-identifies as an atheist in Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability). As I understand it, the ethics of permaculture were deliberately pared back to a minimal set of values that could be consistent with, and integrated into, almost all major belief systems; spiritual or otherwise. It is inherently atheistic, in the sense that it is not, in and of itself, a religious or spiritual discipline.
I believe that the enforced use of symbols and practices (e.g. meditation, grounding exercises) drawn from certain cultural & religious traditions at permaculture courses and events is potentially damaging. By creating an association between permaculture and certain forms of (new age-approved) spirituality, we limit permaculture and undermine its cultural "portability". By borrowing the hallmarks of some religions we potentially exclude others, not to mention the secular: we risk creating a kind of worldview monoculture.
Furthermore, the appropriation of religious symbolism & practice potentially carries the risk of offending the very traditions from which they have been drawn by using them in inappropriate, disrespectful or blasphemous ways.
To be truly inclusive as teachers & facilitators, I believe that we should keep religion out of our permaculture teaching and credit our students with the intelligence to make their own choices about spirituality.
When the topic of discomfort about singing in front of a group has been raised, I've been told that "There is evidence that singing reduces stress hormones". And this is true.
However, there is also evidence that performance anxiety greatly elevates stress hormones: being coerced through peer pressure into singing in front of an audience of 50 people can be deeply traumatic for some people. As teachers, I feel we should give deep consideration to when (and whether) it is appropriate to create situations where people are required to sing on front of others.
Finally I encounter a kind of tacit judgement that I'm just a bit uptight and would benefit from loosening up a bit. I admit that this is true to some extent. But while I identify as middle class, liberal and open minded, this is in the context if my cultural background: Yorkshire in the north of England. We are socially conservative, repressed and proud of it. We have a long tradition of deeply reserved behaviour, understated compliments, adversarial humour and muttering sarcastic comments into our beer. And to be honest, I'm fine with that.
I have no cultural frame of reference for holding hands in a field "feeling the energy go through my feet and into the earth". When I'm cajoled into these kinds of activities I feel utterly inauthentic, like I'm betraying my true identity and pretending to everyone around me. Making me participate in these activities makes me more uptight, not less. And there are plenty of folks who are a lot more uptight than me!
Privilege & Marginalisation
Being a white, middle class man from Western Europe I am profoundly privileged. How can I possibly claim to feel marginalised? Well, that's kind of the point: if someone as privileged as me can feel this marginalised, who else is being marginalised but doesn't feel as empowered as me to speak up?
How about people who are introverts or chronically shy? I've had students tell me how relieved they were that the PDC we'd just taught wasn't full of "happy clappy stuff" because it would have made them leave the course. I've had another student tell me that they went through a living hell during what seemed to me a to be a completely innocuous ice-breaker exercise on the first day of a PDC.
And how about people from other cultural backgrounds? There are countless other cultures that are far more reserved and socially conservative than us Yorkshire folk.
And it seems that those of us who are uncomfortable about this stuff are in good company. An experienced British permaculture teacher recounted a story of a similar exercise at an International Permaculture Convergence many years ago. He was standing in a circle next to Bill Mollison. When they were told to hold hands Bill turned to him and muttered "load of fucking woo-woo".
And yet those of us who feel marginalised and excluded by these practices seem to keep going along with them. And those who promote them don't seem to "get" how others feel about it. Why?
Well, I have a theory that goes something like this...
Peer Pressure: Obedience & Conformity
In group situations, most people surrender a great deal of power to the leader, be they a 'superior' colleague, a teacher, a facilitator, or other figure of authority. As the famous Milgram Experiment shows, most people have a strong tendency to obey authority figures, even if they are instructing them to take actions that are completely at odds with their internal ethics and morals.
On top of our tendency towards obedience, we have a strong propensity to conform to group behaviours. Famous examples showing this include the Asch Experiment, the Smoke Filled Room Study and a clip - "Groupthink" - from the US T.V. show Candid Camera.
What I find interesting in all of these examples is the degree of discomfort that the subject feels during the process. The situation places them in a state of cognitive dissonance between what their senses, ethics, beliefs and reasoning tell them and the signals received from superiors and/or the behaviour of the group. For many, the easiest way to reduce the dissonance and discomfort is to obey or conform: the alternative is to choose potential conflict with an authority figure or with a group: unfavourable odds.
As teachers and facilitators this gives us an incredible amount of power in group situations. And with this power comes a great responsibility to care for the people in our charge.
Ambiguous Feedback Signals
I would hope that any professional permaculture teacher or facilitator who is serious about their practice would apply self-regulation and accept feedback. So why don't the people who are placing others in such discomfort seem to be doing so? One would think that a participant climbing out of a window to avoid an activity is a pretty clear feedback signal. But I'm not so sure.
If a facilitator has personally derived a great deal of benefit from the kind of exercises outlined above, they're likely to be positively disposed towards the activity, and be keen to share them: "I found this really powerful and beneficial, so I'd like to share with others so they can benefit too". Their starting position about the activity is positive, and due to confirmation bias, they're likely to interpret feedback that does come to them in a way that confirms their starting position.
And if they haven't personally experienced discomfort around this kind of activity, the likelihood of someone else being uncomfortable is much less likely to be on their radar: they aren't looking for negative feedback.
If they're leading an activity with a group of 50 people, their adrenalin is likely to be high. They're thinking about what to say next; is what they've planned going to work? What's the weather doing? Are the group doing the task correctly? A myriad of questions and thoughts run through the facilitator's mind. The people who are a bit uncomfortable, but go along with the activity out of peer pressure are not necessarily outwardly giving a clear feedback signal; certainly, any signals that they do give may be too subtle for the facilitator's distracted and adrenalin-drenched brain to pick up on. Those who quietly slip away are not even visible. If the vast majority of the group seem to be going along with the activities and joining in, the feedback signal is overwhelmingly positive and reinforcing.
In the absence of clear, unambiguous feedback signals, the facilitator is understandably likely to miss the fact that they've unwittingly made a number of their participants uncomfortable, that they've potentially alienated and excluded members of their group.
But this is part of the challenge of truly welcoming diversity and creating a genuinely inclusive culture. To do so we must be wary of the danger of confirmation bias, cultivate empathy and actively invite - and deeply engage with - critical feedback and different perspectives.
Hopefully, the EPT has provided a safe space for people to try out their teaching and facilitation techniques. As teachers of permaculture, any EPT participants that did feel uncomfortable during these exercises are already very much "bought-in" to permaculture and are probably used to seeing some of this stuff. No real harm has been done.
But what about those people on the edges of permaculture: those we wish to invite in? What about PDC course participants that EPT participants are going to be teaching? Should teachers use any of these methods and activities on introductory courses or PDCs?
If we're serious about living permaculture ethics of people care, and principles of integrating as diverse a range of people as possible into the permaculture community, I think we really need to pay attention to the feedback we receive from those people at margins.
My plea to teachers and facilitators is this: If you're going to perform rituals, conduct group meditation, use techniques like those from The Work that Reconnects, or compel people to sing, please make these activities genuinely optional: be absolutely clear about what you're offering and what it entails, and be absolutely clear that it's absolutely OK to not join in.
Better still, avoid putting people in uncomfortable situations by making the default option non-participation. Make it so that people who want to do this stuff have to actively choose to do it, rather than putting people in a situation where they feel they have to climb out of a window, hide behind straw bales or quietly slip away.
Here are some questions around inclusion that all teachers & facilitators might find useful to reflect on:
What might it feel like to have a group leader and a group of people encouraging you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable?
Have you ever gone along with something that didn't agree with because the group encouraged you to do it? How did you feel about yourself afterwards?
Have you ever taken an individual stand against a large group of people? How might it feel?
Have you ever been excluded from a group? How did that feel?
How could you develop your practice to avoid excluding people?
Is a permaculture course or event the right place for spiritual practices or exercises designed to create deep connection?