Living By Design – Not Default

“We can either live life through design or through default” Say Dr Charlie Brennan and Bridget O’Brien of Garden Juju Collective.  In our interview, Charlie discusses ethics in Permaculture and his involvement in group projects to help us design a better future’.

Design or Default – The Choice to be Active or Passive

Charlie came from Dartmoor, UK to Australia as a young man. His family also lived in Singapore during his teens. “One of the things I studied in my doctorate was eco-psychology. I feel like a sense of place became a big thing”. Because of the moves in his youth “which were both very exciting but also kind of dislocating”. In his research Charlie uncovered eugenic narratives by Joseph Campbell. “we need to understand the stories we’re living or the stories will live us”

One the things that came out of Charlie’s study was that the importance of a critical approach. That doesn’t mean criticizing it means looking at the arrangements we enter ourselves into. And learning from practice.

Permaculture Design is a Practice Not a Doctrine

“it’s very much about practice. It’s not about some doctrine. Permaculture isn’t a doctrine. It’s a set of practices which are exciting and fantastic. And they need to be evolving all the time… Anything can be treated as a doctrine. Permaculture can be, so can football training…but that’s not necessarily useful. It’s useful to keep things as an active set of practices.

Photo by ALEXANDRE DINAUT on Unsplash

Ethical Framework of Permaculture

“Permaculture is fantastic. It also is problematic sometimes. But it’s probably the only framework to address everything that’s going on. So it’s incredibly valuable. And it’s fantastic especially for holistic systemic thinking. It’s fantastic for engaging with the organic world and as a practical guide to getting things done. It’s for people who want to do something different, sustainable, regenerative and healing.”

“Ethics drives permaculture and what we’re all trying to do. Because we’re always evaluating the you know how effective or good or better this action is over that action.

Permaculture has Ethics but isn’t an Ethical System

The three ethics of permaculture (Care of Planet, Care of People and Fair Share) are more an ethic rather than a set of ethics, But they’re not ethical systems. Ethical systems offer a way of evaluating complex dilemmas that are incredibly hard to work out. For instance, we might ask: ‘do these trees stay in or do these trees come out? Do we involve these people or not? What do we do with the produce? Where do we share it? Where do we put boundaries around our knowledge versus sharing?’ All these things incredibly complicated.

Ethical Systems

Ethical systems include utilitarianism, care ethics or deontology. Charlie thinks these traditional forms of ethical approach are still really important. “We ask is it your sacred duty to live your life as close to your values as you can?

It’s challenging. But it’s also very exciting. We can suggest systems that people get a chance to explore for themselves. We ask people to look at Carol Gilligan’s care ethics. This is about 30 years old. It is sometimes seen as a feminist approach to ethics. It is unlike a bunch of old white men being quite abstract (which has its place)”. Ethics by Carol Gilligan questions the qualities of the relationship around you. And of course, there are many valuable “ethical systems from indigenous values and practices”.

Design Wisdom of Our Elders

Sometimes permaculture would challenge traditional methods. But Charlie has talked with a lot of older farmers. “They all have a set of ethics. They all have ethical aims to be the best farmer you can. Or to produce the best produce or the best soil… It involves ethical decisions on an ongoing basis. So you’re evaluating whether you use one weed method of removal or another. Or whether you even leave the weeds or not. Whether you employ certain labour. Or whether people can walk through your land. If it’s private or not. There is a constant set of ethical evaluations

adapt card game

ADAPT Card Game for Design

Charlie and Bridget O’Brien are keen for permaculture to be applied to everything. In fact, that’s how Bridget came up with the adapt game. It is now available and for sale. It is permaculture design boiled down to a design process. Adapt helps adapt without being narcissistic and selfish. “We’re doing things as a collective. And we’re doing things in service. We’re asking the question ‘what are we in service of? we’re in the service of the planet or really important causes”. To be ethical, creative and positive.

We can either live life through design
or through default.

Charlie Brennan

Life presents us with values. And we adopt these. Often we’re “scared to change from them. We live by not designing anything. Some are scared to design things. Also, what a lot of people do is design by impulse. They say !#$% it: ‘I’m doing my own thing now. And they make choices which are impulsive.

Our Adapt game is a holistic systemic approach to the design. It supports and encourages you to explore other options. It asks you to answer some difficult questions. Because a card will come up and say ‘what are the ethics of this? Or, how are you going to put this into action?

We don’t always like to go to the difficult places in designing approaches. Yet the difficult places are also often the fertile places. And so, by the end of a round of Adapt, you’ll come up with a much more involved plan. You will be putting your dream or desire or need into action.”

Live by design. Learn more with us.

This is How I want to Live – I Choose Hope

Spoof on the poster for Avatar the movie

Hope fuels our quest for more sustainable, resilient, and permanent culture. Permaculture leader with experience as a facilitator and spiritual coach. She takes us on a journey of questioning, observing and building gratitude and hope.

Bonita says “Trying to live my life in a good way, live my life with meaning and purpose. And for me that’s about taking care of the life around me.

‘Embers of Hope’ is for those who really care. And it takes some measure of courage and strength and some sort of faith. And that’s not about religion that’s just about
some sort of connection to something bigger and more powerful than ourselves. In the book I share a lot about my relationship with death. And also my perspective on ecological collapse, how I’m dealing with it emotionally. And how I’ve learnt to deal with it.”

Dead butterfly in spider’s larder

The Dying World

“One of the earlier pieces in the book is how much denial I was in around death. I didn’t really have much of a relationship with death. I didn’t grow up with the celebration of death.”

Bonita recalls “I learned about death in a very pragmatic and in a very spiritual way through the garden, through compost. And it was that experience of putting something into the compost. And then coming back a week later and it being transformed. Whether that was food scraps or a dead animal that we had found in the garden. What we perceive as the end transforms nourishment for the next cycle of life.

It wasn’t as a young person that I learnt about death until I really began to garden. And learned that, oh well plants do have their natural life cycles. And as we return nutrients to the compost. As we return nutrients to the soil, we’re being part of that natural cycle.

spoof on whistlers mother

Balance Through Understanding

What I bring through the book is this renewed relationship with death. My relationship with death now is it’s so much more balanced and so much more equanimous. Having spent few years raising animals and having worked on different farms. And connecting with friends who are traditional hunters or non-traditional hunters. Or finding an animal on the side of the road that was killed by a car. And trying to honour that animal.

I’ve learned through the natural world, the living world and the dying world that there is a sacredness. And a sense of harmony from accepting and learning to find some peace in that wholeness which includes life and it includes death.

It includes birthing and it includes loss and dying. Also how I try to live with the climate crisis. The ecological crisis that we are all facing. It’s easy to be in denial and I know that
in that part of my life when I really denied death and though that I was just invincible,
and I hadn’t lost anyone close to me yet and I didn’t have any pets except for goldfish. And it wasn’t a big deal to lose a goldfish. Because I couldn’t hold that gold fish, or cuddle it, or kiss it.

Hope Builds as Hearts Open

As my life opened up, my heart opened up to the reality that I will die at some point. That opened me in a whole other way giving me so much more depth and richness in my life.

So I started this book. And I thought that maybe it was going to be a book on social permaculture. And non-violent communication which I also practice and teach. I started the book a few times. I started the introduction, had a table of contents and the structure in it. It looked interesting. But it didn’t really come together, it didn’t gel, it didn’t grab me.

Then a very close friend was diagnosed with ALS with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Being with her through that process, in what she chose for herself, was a powerful, enlivening experience.

This chick is full of hope

Focus on Healing

She chose to focus on healing. She didn’t know if the diagnosis was correct…she didn’t know if she would have one year. Or five years or ten years. So she focused on her healing. Living each day to its fullest. And in trying to give back to all of the people in her life, her loved ones, her community. And at some point she also said, “Okay well just in case I’m wrong. Just in case I’m not going to have the outcome that I’m really hoping for, I’ve redone my will. Here is my power of attorney for health. And here are the papers and let’s not dwell on it because ‘I’m feeling well. I feel great. My life is still amazing’, and with so much vitality right up until the end.

Forest of Tranquility, NSW, Australia

Making Choices. Choosing Hope.

And so for me that became such a powerful metaphor for how I want to live in these times. We know that there is so much that is off balance in our world politically, economically, ecologically. And there is already so much change and there is already so much loss. We also don’ t know the outcome. We are all co-creating this as we go along. So my friend, Katherine’s, journey became such a powerful metaphor for me of how I can live in this time.

We can look towards the future and not know. Because as human beings we don’t know if we will if we’ll die tomorrow. If we’ll die in five years, if we’ll die of old age or if we’ll get struck by lightning. Or hit by a car.. We don’t know.

“Wisdom enables us to work with the unknown and known.” Prof. Stuart B Hill.

Embrace Not Knowing

For me the journey with this book has been learning to embrace this not knowing. And learning to live well while doing so. And for me that comes back to permaculture. Trying to live my life in a good way, live my life with meaning and purpose,

For me that’s about taking care of the life round me. That’s about making, creating more beauty around me. And that is in the garden, that is on the land and that is also in community as well.

To brave that painful life-threatening reality will fuel the fires of us taking the action that we need to take.

It’s not just about positive thinking. It’s about making peace with these painful realities, with this possibility of tremendous loss. And having that be what fuels us. Having that be what makes us choose intentionally.

Seedlings live in hope

Use Energy to Make a Better World

This is how I want to live the rest of my life. I want to use my life energy to make this garden, this land, this community healthier, stronger, more resilient.”

By intentionally choosing hope, we gather energy and find positive actions. Learn more about Permaculture with our personal mentor.

Bonita Ford’s excellent book Embers of Hope provides practical ideas on how to act for a better future.

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Difference Between Organic Gardening and Permaculture

Design Matters

Design features of Permaculture:

  1. It has an ethical core. The test is: if it isn’t good for the earth and good for people in a fair share, then don’t use it.
  2. Each site is design to imitate Natural Systems. Permaculture uses biological resources and natural energies and observes the clever ways nature responds and adapts. Nature cycles the energy resulting in now waste. Efficiency is Natural.
  3. Permaculture uses a set of Principles, Strategies and Techniques

Integration is Key

Permaculture uses organic gardening practices but it goes beyond. It integrates the garden and home to create a lifestyle that impacts less on the environment.

The Permaculture garden is more than an organic garden. Although organic food production often has many innovative elements, a Permaculture designed garden joins each of the elements into functional relationships.

Being Mindful

Permaculture design is mindful of our relationship with our environment.  We see we are living in a period of energy resource limits. And we acknowledge that emissions are contributing to the heating the planet. Many of us are feeling the changes and seeing our environments polluted.  Whilst a few wealthy people have the resources to ignore climate change, most of the world’s people cannot. Rich people can relocate, get air-conditioning,  and import truck-loads of water.  But even the wealthy cannot fix nitrous oxide build-up or save their beach homes from collapse.

Big, Little, and More

Permaculture thinking can be applied to many physical and social structures. It is energy-wise and collaborative to minimise the impact of a culture on the surrounding environment. A good permaculture design has great potential. It can connect neighbours. The biggest Permaculture site in the world, The Chikukwa Project, has helped the whole community.

Permaculture design has:

  • Focus on closing the nutrient and water loop by using waste, and reducing the dependence on inputs.
  • Creation of healthier soil and diversity of produce.Our Permaculture Design and Demonstration Site.
  • Responsibility for waste. There is an aim to eliminate waste. i.e. no excess nitrogen nor weed seed, released.
  • Variety keeps residents engaged and excited about growing their food.
  • Imitating nature by conserving the soil and water, and genetic capital. There is an intensive use of space. Plants are allowed to set seed and are inter-planted for pest control. You are unlikely to see food plants in rows. The permaculture site will look more like a food-forest with some open glades full of herbs and perennials.
  • Optimisation of natural energies, e.g. wind, dust, leaves, bird droppings.
  • Nutritious food and habitat for people AND native animals and birds.
  • experimental permaculture chickenDependence on observation. Permaculture design is a mixed technology.  Bill Mollison (co-founder of permaculture movement) said that permaculture, like a bicycle, it is adaptable and has great potential but is only as good as the user.
  • Minimal risk. If we fail at permaculture, nature simply takes over. The soil will continue to heal, the forests grow and someone else can step in to rebuild our efforts.
difference between organic gardening and Permaculture

What’s the difference between Organic Farming and Permaculture?

Closed and Open Nutrient Cycling

There is a significant difference between closed and open food-production systems. In a truly closed system (one in vacuum or in space) energy is not lost it is simply transferred from one being or element to another. In a permaculture system, (which can never be fully closed), energy is ideally used by one element effectively and passed on for the benefit of the next before it leaves the system.

Organic Farming promotes the use of natural fertilisers, making use of the natural carbon cycle so that waste from plants becomes the food (fertiliser) of another. In organic farming however, as with ALL farming, minerals are being lost from the farm every time a truck load of produce is carted to market.

The Ideal Permaculture ‘Farm’ brings production of food closer to consumers and the consumer’s wastes back into the cycle. It also reduces the energy wasted in transporting the foods by producing the foods where the people are. In permaculture, the people contribute in their daily life toward the production of their food and other needs.

Soft Technology Tea - Tea doesn't have to cost the earth
Tea doesn’t have to cost the earth

When is Permaculture not Organic?

There will be times when a permaculture system is not strictly organic:

  • being adaptable as nature when we use local resources rather than imported certified organic resources
  • When we want to increase diversity by bringing in unusual plants/seeds from a non-organic plant supplier
  • Permaculture is capable of enhancing a supply and converting it to organic. for example: when we grow food-plants along polluted river or roadsides to filter out toxins and break them down to safer levels. We know we may not be able to eat these plants but we can keep them as our ‘catastrophe’ backup.

Essentially Permaculture is trying to close the energy loop by optimising what we have.

Fostering A Culture of Community Recycling

compost is pretty hot stuff

This is not usually due to an intentional use of pesticides, but often due to the use of a by-product that would otherwise be wasted. We could use old shoes as pots for plants, an old truck tyre/tire to hold the edges of a pond. Sometimes the choices are difficult and we have to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. For example: At Silk Farm we use recycled oil (to make fire starters) and the oil cans (for our simple worm-farm towers) from a non-certified organic restaurant who sometimes uses leaves and fruits from our garden. This ‘trade’ stimulates our local relationship and fosters a culture of resourcefulness.

Permaculture Can Actively Convert Resources

worm towers

We would need to weigh the benefit of a using a free local waste (ie. horse manure) versus supporting a good organic supplier who may be in another country. When we design well, the permaculture system can act as a cleanser or processing agent. Sometimes, we can transform then utilise a polluted waste (within what is realistic achievable).  In the case of the horse manure, we could ask the owner about their anti-worming medication, check that it can be broken down by high-temperature composting then go about re mediating it before using it.  Good permaculture design will aim to have a better output than input. Organic gardening may not have checks to reduce the system’s impact on the wider natural system.

Build you knowledge about permaculture by doing a permaculture design course with us.

And you can build your design skills with our Design-Think-Tank Sessions.

Set Your Goals Last

Build Values First

Stuart Hill urges us to be driven by our ethics and values, feelings and passions rather than particular goals or resolutions.  By revisiting our ethics and values at the end of the year we can keep the positive fire burning.

By listening to our feelings and passions we give ourselves the energy to create a better future. Though acknowledging our passion we formulate a vision, purpose. Once our passion is invested in our future, we can find energy to develop goals, and sustain the plans and activities.

  1. Self reliant eldersAwaken your ethics and values
  2. Acknowledge your feelings and passions
  3. Research your ideas, visions and design (doing this permaculture course is a critical tool in developing systems thinking and building your own design)
  4. Create action plans
  5. Finally start the regular activities that will help you realise your goals. At the end of each day, set goals that help achieve the actions you set in your plan.

Hill urges us to:  “Act from your core/essential self – empowered, aware, visionary, principled, passionate, loving, spontaneous, fully in the present (contextual) – vs. your patterned, fearful, compensatory, compromising, de-contextual selves”

Core Values for Social Permaculture Design

Every person is different. No two permaculture designers will have the same passions and goals. Here are two different applications of Hills suggestion to act from your core self:

  • Ana* knows her core self [empowered, aware, visionary, principled, passionate, loving, spontaneous, fully in the present] involves working with rare fruits and edible flowers. She builds skills in growing food plants. She also develops her catering projects, observing what drives people to try new foods. She searches for the best way to harvest and cook these unusual foods. Ana strives to find way to integrate rare foods into household gardens and onto the plate.   Finally, she aims to build community awareness.  Whenever Ana has a set-back (like the time vandals broke into the nursery to destroy plants) she listens to her core passion. This gives her energy to mend flaws in her action plan.
  • Zane* knows his core self [empowered, aware, visionary, principled, passionate, loving, spontaneous, fully in the present] loves working with people. He listens and helps them relieve their hunger by helping them to grow food, build water catchment and storage and make efficient stoves. There are more than a few daunting barriers in achieving the long-term goals of this project. The barriers include social perceptions, land access and resources (like seeds and access to water).  Over the years, Chris has some devastating set-backs.  Sadly, the setbacks include natural disasters. He knows these disasters will strike because the projects are on marginal land. Revisiting his core passion gives him some solace. Through re-visiting his core he recharges his passion. With renewed passion he strengthens his action plans.

[*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.]

Discover your core principles and enjoy the discovery.

Happy new year from us at Permaculture Visions.