Powers Social Permaculture: Leading with Care and Science

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Permaculture leader Matt Powers
Photo by Adriana Powers

With an M.A. in Education, Matt Powers is one of the most watched permaculture instructors online–author, teacher, seed-saver, plant-breeder, gardener, consultant, speaker, and publisher at his website, The Permaculture Student. Matt has taught K-12, college, and adult learners all over the world. A former public high school teacher, Matt authored the first government-accredited permaculture curriculum in North America (fully cited, peer-reviewed, & aligned to national standards), and his work continues to spread in schools, colleges, and universities globally with 20 books in 6 languages and 10 online courses. 

I caught up with Matt to ask him about his vision for social permaculture, or the “people care” aspect of permaculture.

Matt, first: How did you get into permaculture?

MP: About a year after our first child was born (he’s 14 now), my wife was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She went through the standard radiation treatments but soon within months had another form of cancer. The doctors wouldn’t meet my eye when I asked if the radiation was connected to the new cancer, and then they couldn’t agree upon how soon was safe for her to be near the baby. I didn’t know who to trust – I lost all trust in the medical system, and I found myself studying for years searching to figure out how to help my wife. I found that food and diet were the things we could control and I needed a deep understanding of plants and nature to grow in the 140 degree Fahrenheit soils. That’s where permaculture came in. She’s had other cancers since then and we’ve faced them together and she has beaten them all, so in some ways we are still on that quest.

While all that was going on, I got my M.A. in Education and started teaching high school in the sixth most violent county in the country. The kids needed a way out, the way to a decent livelihood, a way to connect to the land. I felt in some ways too that I was caught like them in a dead-end job in a dead-end area.

Permaculture gave me hope and made all the connections ethical and regenerative, but it wasn’t in a curriculum yet – it was only for adults at that point. My mission is to fix our education system with regenerative science and permaculture ethics. As a teacher–I have to have standards and objectives related to those standards for this. So that’s why I proposed the Permaculture  Education standards and why I wrote my books in alignment with the  National Science Education Standards (NSES) and the Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS). My works are cited and peer-reviewed as well. The idea is to prepare this information for mainstream adoption and scrutiny – it has to be able to get into schools, universities, and the economy. It has to facilitate permanent cultures.

 Permacuture ethics poster by Matt Powers

Matt, how would you define permaculture?

In the simplest terms, it is a way of seeing the world through nature’s eyes, based on three ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Future Care. This requires constant observation and adaptation because nature is always changing. 

Permaculture is action-oriented. You gotta do right action to feel right. Studying is one thing; only when we create, work, do– is it real. 

Permaculture provides a framework for regenerative ecological design of wild and crop land, cities, neighborhoods, houses and homes, and communities. Permaculture is a roadmap–my roadmap on all levels– to a prosperous, sustainable, healthy, and ethical future where everyone in their communities and bio-regions can provide for themselves in abundance.

For instance, in almost all places of historical logging in California, the terrain was re-designed to drain, not retain water, to bring logs downslope using the annual flow of water, but overtime that has drained the landscape of moisture and carried the topsoils away. They are also draining the water from catchment above the food hills, drying them out further, making these wildfires in actuality man-made events. Constant short-sightedness has led us here. We can fix this using permaculture as a lens and applying keyline design.

People are realizing that  retaining water in the landscape is a necessary reserve against today’s droughts and mega fires. Permaculture can design to do this. Local communities around the world have grown more resilient socially as well as ecologically by implementing these kinds of earthworks together. Why don’t we see more large permaculture community examples in the U.S.?

Yes, exactly. It’s a challenge here to do it on a large scale due to regulations not set up for this kind of thing and in many ways designed to prevent this sort of thing. But we can do it on private land in some of the freer areas of the country still. 90% of permaculture is observation, so if we can get working examples out there for folks to see, we’d even see a powerful change and adoption take place. 

What’s your take on the three Permaculture Ethics as a whole?

They give me the lens through which I view everything.

Permaculture ethics start a conversation that never ends. Introducing them to young children–they become a reference point for the rest of their lives. 

They’re all based on Care. When we lead with Care, our thoughtful solutions sometimes surprise us. In this time of turmoil, the three ethics provide clarity and direction.

What does the People Care ethic, aka Social Permaculture, mean to you?

When I first realized Permaculture didn’t have principles for People Care I was a little surprised. David Holmgren’s approach has a holistic edge that gives it traction in this area, but I’ve never seen any principles anywhere…. 

Permaculture is a path of service and a process of healing. It is all about CARE. We have to lead with CARING. So I created a proposed list to start the conversation around what principles we should have and how they should be worded.

I did the same exact thing with Permaculture Education Standards – we didn’t have them, so I made them public for comment, edited them, and have them released in my book, The Advanced Permaculture Student Teacher’s Guide. I hope we can see the standards adopted everywhere in time. I want the Social Permaculture principles, as well, to evolve and go out into the world. 

Social Permaculture is People Care in Action, the design, planning, and action of People Care, and the lynchpin for successful projects and cultures. At this time of social change especially, we need to double down on people care, working together with earth care, with our eyes on future care – that overlap is Permaculture.

How did you come to the Social Permaculture Principles you’ve distilled?

First–the unexamined life has the ability to divide us. Unless we can see ourselves clearly, we can’t see others clearly. This is basic to mental and physical discipline.

So much harm comes from living carelessly, without thinking…

Social Permaculture must have principles, standards, and objectives to be properly taught especially in a schooling context. Guiding principles are essential. 

What are the first principles that unite us?

What common rubrics do we hold? If we examine them, do we want to keep them? Being Unstoppable is great–until moderation is what is needed.

So the Social Permaculture Principles themselves?

To start:

  • Treat others better than they expect to be treated. Then…
  • Build trust by showing trust and being trustworthy.
  • Be Clear. Choose your words carefully.
  • Set clear boundaries–like all edges, boundaries are areas for productivity.
  • Educate by example–people have to see it, touch it, taste it, experience it, and know its story to adopt a significant change in the way they live. Live it. Be it.
  • Share as much as you can. 
  • Be self-reliant and prepared [floods, for instance, happen!]. When you’re safe and secure on higher ground, you can help people in the floodwaters get up to where you are.   
  • Be patient. This is Caring on the most fundamental level. 
  • Be local. It’s the driver for influence.
  • Be open to new ideas.  
  • Be timely. This shows respect for yourself and others.
  • Solutions, not complaints! Think of what’s possible. This attitude spreads stability.
  • Be the first to smile. It shocks people! Then most often they’ll mirror you and smile back.
  • Family first. We can’t stress ‘em out! Family is the foundation of culture.
  • Work on priorities. What matters right now?
  • Innovate and adapt.
  • Don’t take offense–be better. This brings the most rewards in learning and growth.
  • Look to and honor elders.
  • Celebrate common interests.We need national cultural celebrations. It could set the tone in every walk of life.
  • Listen to and make space for children, youth, and young adults. With very young children, stories and active immersion are key. Give them seeds, help them sow and propagate them–beautify and foodify…

Matt, thank you. Any further thoughts right now?

We as a society are like kids singing along to a song whose lyrics we don’t actually agree with – if we just slowed down and listened, we’d likely be disgusted or at least shocked with the things we are repeating… people right now in America are seeing each other as locked in to certain definitions and thus unchangeable. Socially we are in one of those places where we can’t see the other side of the hill. Or maybe it’s waves–we can see and get above these waves, these hills, to live and care, starting a new conversation with no preconceived ideas, honoring and celebration, BUT we must lead with Care.

Pam Sherman blogs for Mother Earth News, and gardens at altitude.You can read all of Pam’s Mother Earth News postshere.


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