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Grassroots Permaculture responses in times of crisis

Rooting our crisis response in ethics and community solidarity

In times of crisis, which by nature are volatile and uncertain, it might seem unusual to promote a response inspired by a movement whose name is a portmanteau of Permanent Agriculture or Permanent Culture. Why encourage permanence when only more impermanence is certain?

Permaculture as a name and a movement emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s in Australia, coined by Mollison and Homgren. Originally, Permaculture was developed as a holistic design framework to approach ecological agriculture, but has since been applied to other areas of life beyond agriculture - from human settlements and eco-building, to social cohesion, art and culture, and landscape restoration. What began as a movement to help communities meet their food needs in a way that replenished ecological health, soon grew bigger, deeper and wider.

But how can Permaculture relate to people who are displaced and living in refugee camps, or those affected by extreme weather and disasters? These situations are impermanent, so are permanent solutions appropriate?

In her book Cultural Emergence, Looby Macnamara explores how our cultures and institutions are ever evolving and reshaping. Even in seemingly stable and wealthy contexts, our surroundings are always changing. Acknowledging this, as Permaculture and Cultural Emergence practitioners our aim is then to facilitate space to meet our needs within our ever shifting environments (Macnamara, 2020). The ‘Permanence’ in Permaculture, then, could refer to the permanence not of the systems we are designing, but permanence of the abilities to meet our needs.

A notable feature of Permaculture, and one that is relatively unusual for a design methodology, is the inclusion of ethics. In times of crisis, the three ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share can be a guide for practitioners. In his book The Politics of Permaculture, Terry Leahy describes Permaculture as a grassroots social movement (Leahy, 2021). It is the inclusion of People Care and Fair Share that takes Permaculture out of the realm of individualistic response, and into the communal. Indeed, we know from those who have experienced displacement, war or disaster that it is often only because of other people that they are able to meet their needs. We often cannot be self-sufficient on our own, but when we invoke the power of Mutual Aid, of humans caring for other humans in a way that also cares for the living, ecological resources upon which we rely - this takes Permaculture into the realm of the political and the social movement.

The ethic of Fair Share, by nature, feels anarchic. It is caring for our communities outside of conventional economic means. We distribute resources freely. We provide for our communities free of monetary charge, because our communities are the source of our own nourishment. This might seem in opposition to the neo-liberal agendas of some development agencies, which seek to mould and model every country in the Global South in the image of Western capitalism. Instead, Permaculture offers pathways to community resilience that live outside of conventional, capitalist culture. In some contexts, this requires some deep, transformational work to overcome conditioned individualistic wealth-hoarding, though in many cultures a sense of communality still remains.

Permaculture is participatory. In times of crisis, the core ethics of Permaculture guide us to collaborate and meet our needs communally. This might be by mapping needs, distributing resources and offering Permaculture training like Green Releaf in the Philippines after natural disasters. It might be building Treebogs in refugee camps which meet people’s sanitation needs while also growing food - like Farming and Health Education in Kenya. It might be growing perennial crops, fruit and nut trees in public spaces so all locals benefit from free food, like the Incredible Edible network. It might be peace-building and community wellbeing after conflict and war, like Green Kashmir.

While our solutions might have to be adaptable in times that are becoming more volatile and impermanent each year, Permaculture can offer us a framework and a way of thinking for us to respond to crises.

Would you like to learn more about Permaculture and how you can apply it in your work? Re-Alliance can facilitate introductory webinars or in person courses tailored to you and your organisation, or connect you with a local Permaculture practitioner. Re-Alliance specialises in trainings for humanitarian and development organisations and agencies. Contact us here to discuss this with us.


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