Movement musings, rants, rambles…

Embracing 4 Ethics of Permaculture

This article was originally printed in Permaculture Design Magazine issue #110, Winter 2019, the Permaculture Ethics issue.

As permaculture becomes more popular and gains greater recognition with a mainstream audience here in North America, I find that it’s helpful to have your “elevator speech” ready-to-hand to quickly define it when it comes up in casual conversation. I usually speak about permaculture in concrete terms at first using keywords like “edible landscaping” or “edible ecosystem design,” while dancing around the more abstract idea of whole systems design. If the people I’m talking to seem interested and want to talk more, then I move up in abstraction to talk in terms of “ethically bounded ecological design framework.” Normally, you hear that there are three ethics to permaculture: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share. Sometimes you hear it as Earth Care, People Care and Future Care. The first two ethics are easy to explain, easy to understand and they usually only need a sentence of explanation. A lay person can quickly and intuitively grasp the meaning behind Earth Care and People Care.

Fair Share or Future Care are less easy to explain or understand in this 30-second “elevator speech” scenario in an American context. Even when I have a longer format to explain permaculture to an interested audience, that third ethic needs 2-3 sentences because it attempts to unite two separate ideas into one ethic. Indeed, compared to the first two ethics, the third ethic can sound almost abstruse: “set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.”  As permaculture gains more attention from a more mainstream lay American audience, we can’t have the core philosophy of our design discipline sound abstract.

One of the things that sets permaculture apart from other design disciplines is the fact that it is an ethically bounded system of ecological design. Think of a set of concentric rings or a spiral. At the center are the ethics. Spiraling outward are the design principles, pattern literacy, goals, strategies, and finally the concrete aspects like techniques and tools. Ethics are at the core of permaculture design, and I think they are in need of a slight revision for an American audience.

Here in the United States, our self-conception of being the exception to all rules (both ecological and economic) runs very deep. For ease of explanation and understanding and to directly challenge the American resistance to accepting any kind of limits I propose breaking that third ethic into two. I was originally introduced to the concept of four ethics in permaculture by this image drawn by someone named Christine and found in the wilds of the internet. I don’t know the original creator of this image, but the signature looks like it has an original creation date of 2002. It keeps the rhyming convention because everyone seems to like that. So the four ethics in this proposal are Care, Care, Share, Aware: Care for the Earth, Care for the People, Share the Surplus, Aware-ness of Limits. Based on David Holmgren’s ethics, and broke into four pieces, this is the gist:

Care for the Earth – rebuild and regenerate ecosystem health (after Holmgren). This icon represents the earth and all the biological and ecological processes that keep us alive on this spaceship. In this case it’s focused on plants, but it also includes all insect, bird, wildlife, and elements that make for a healthy ecosystem. The imperative here is to take responsibility and do our part to regenerate the health of ecosystems immediately all around us.


Care for the People – look after self, kin and community; and treat all beings with respect. This icon shows two people with love on their minds and in their hearts. This love extends to all human people who are alive now or who are about to be born. It extends to future generations and it extends to all the people: human people, tree people, finned people, feathered people, furry people, creepy-crawly people, etc. As Holmgren says, “If people’s needs are met in compassionate and simple ways, the environment surrounding them will prosper.” It’s a natural complement to Earth Care and should include frameworks of social justice.


Share the surplus – in times of abundance, share with others and invest in the first two ethics. This ethic is about a principle of generosity. At different seasons of the year, or in different seasons of one’s life you might experience abundance. Maybe its an abundance from the garden or an abundance of time, money, attention or just hugs. Share that abundance and invest it as you see fit into the first two ethics. This icon is a representation of the “pay it forward” ethic as goodwill spreads throughout a social network in direct and indirect ways.


Aware(ness) of limits – set limits to consumption and reproduction on this finite planet. Everyone knows the sun sets every day. Everyone knows there are boundaries to an island. This icon represents those common knowledge boundaries to remind us of the limits inherent on this finite planet. And even if the sun should set on our species, we should still commit to live an ethical life while we can.


With this slight adjustment, it makes the ethics easier to explain to a lay audience new to permaculture. At one explanatory sentence apiece (with only one semicolon), it also makes the concepts behind the ethics instantly accessible to that lay audience, largely achieved by separating those concepts originally condensed in the Fair Share ethic. As permaculture becomes more popular here in North America, it becomes a conceptual and technical solution set to which people look in times of crisis. The ethics must be central to maintain the integrity of the idea and the solutions that go along with it. The ethics are the axiological foundation of permaculture’s attempt at re-membering an ecological culture rooted to place and acting in right relationship with all beings. We base our values of good and bad on these ethics, which in turn help to determine good and ethical behavior in the world.

The role of catalytic change in the PDC

Part of the allure and impact of permaculture is it’s ability to be a source of meaning for people. The power of the permaculture design certification (PDC) course lies in it’s potential as a catalytic paradigm shift for the participants. In a PDC people often walk away with their worldview expanded, and they are given a solution set to help them adapt to a changing world. This is especially true of an in-person or “meatspace” course, as opposed to online. In the courses we teach with The Resilience Hub we often begin with the “Problem Game,” taught to us by our colleague Dave Jacke. It’s a cathartic exercise to let all the participants in the course talk about the problems of the world as they see them. Popcorn style, people talk in a sentence or two about the big problems in the world. They tend to fall into different categories of biodevastation, economic, political, technological, cultural and mythical problems. Then as a group we discuss how they are connected, and at some point we find that all these problems are connected at the cultural and mythical levels. As an exercise, it is a group catharsis to get all our anxieties off our chest and to look at the problems of the world full in the face and feel the gravity of the converging shitstorms of peak oil, climate change, economic contraction, resource wars, political/cultural upheaval, corporate greed & power, Big Brother, the Nanny State and so on.

If we do our jobs right as “facilitators of educational events” we change the course of people’s lives and give them a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in a chaotic world. If we do our jobs right, we leverage that catharsis to make it catalytic and initiate a permanent change in thought and behavior. More people are attracted to permaculture because of crisis at some scale whether that’s individual and personal or collective and societal. This makes sense given the decline and fall stage of empire we are seeing unfold now. While the physical “collapse” of empires takes an average of 200 years, collapse of meaning can happen much faster.

Meaning, purpose and religion as a category of human experience

It’s important not to understate the importance of meaning and purpose to a culture, and to consider the consequences when meaning and purpose collapse. In most individuals and societies, the wellspring of meaning and purpose comes not from rational or logical thought or understanding of the universe. Meaning and purpose come from narrative, metaphor and myth we generate as a result of inferring patterns out of the chaos of sensory stimuli from the universe. Pattern recognition is a deeply ingrained habit of the human mind. We then weave narratives about how these patterns relate to generate coherent stories as to WHY we are here and WHAT our purpose is in this absurd accident of existence.

I think of this deep source that generates meaning for our lives and sets of values regarding how we should act as “religious inspiration.” It is the ultimate source of human motivation and behavior. It is a significant force that shapes society and the material world. Try not to be too offended by my use of the word religion in this sense. I think that to be human is to be a religious animal, and even if the gods we worship are merely atoms, gravity, electrical forces and spirals of DNA; they still fill that devotional category of human experience. So I’m using religion broadly to refer to this deep wellspring of meaning, metaphysical narrative and purpose. For many people that involves one or many gods. For others, there are no gods but science, technology and a humanistic philosophy of progress to fill that same space. It is of critical importance to remember that many structures and normative behaviors of our society are inherited from a previous religious form. While the theistic aspects may have been stripped, the effect on meaning and purpose are the same. The myth/religion of progress is an example of such a non-theistic or civil religion.

Dimensions of religion as a category of human experience:

  • Ethics and values like the “golden rule”
  • Morals, concepts, behaviors like virtue, nobility, the good life
  • Core beliefs that are seen as self-evidently good, true and sacred by which all standards of goodness and truth are measured.
  • Sacred scriptures like the Bible or the Declaration of Independence
  • Holy actors, saints and martyrs like Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Ceremony, formal rites and ritual drama like the pledge of allegiance and voting
  • Binary opposition to it’s shadow form like Christianity/Satanism, Socialism/Capitalism, Progress/Apocalypse

Examples of civil religions:

  • Marxism and socialism which are complete with a secular rapture they call “The Revolution,” as well as a strong evangelical component.
  • Nationalism like Americanism with its historical exceptionalism and self-evidently positive notions of grandeur embodied in concepts like Manifest Destiny
  • The myth of progress with its faith in Star Trek fantasies and a technology-based Rapture where we metamorphosize (or is it metastasize?) and expand across the solar system.

Assaulting the Myth of Progress

I’m focusing on a North American audience here based on my observations as a permaculture teacher and northeast regional network organizer. As a broad and general observation, Americans don’t like limits and have a deep faith-based commitment to the civil (non-theistic) religion of progress. I can even hear it in some permaculture discourse where people try to cast energy descent in progressive terms like, “A future of less energy could be better than the one we have now.” Again, I’m using religion here as a broad category of human experience from which we draw sources of deep meaning and values. Think of religion as an ultimate source of human motivation and behavior that explains our metaphysical position in the cosmos and gives us narrative meaning. It doesn’t have to be rational or conform to the real world. You can see religion as a force that shapes our thinking, behavior, society and the material world.

An explicit and central awareness of limits can be a helpful antidote to this religion of progress. As infrastructure, economy, democracy and basic respectful social relations break down, this causes a collapse of meaning in our lives. The world we’ve been conditioned to expect has not come to pass and a central organizing myth of our age is losing hold on our imagination and causing chaos. If anyone remembers the overly optimistic technological predictions from the 50’s and 60’s you might remember promises of nuclear power too cheap to be worth charging for, future generations earning more than their parents, weekend vacations to the moon and your own personal jetpack. It’s no wonder people are miffed—where are those jetpacks we were promised?!

If faith in progress is waning, if the ascendant god of the industrial age is dying, what then? Do we continue our collapse into nihilism or find a replacement? Both will likely occur in the short term (100 years or so). Whatever organizing principle of the imagination replaces faith in progress, it must be more adaptive to the existing conditions of decline and fall, brought to you by the twin shitstorms of climate chaos and energy peak.

As a central ethical feature of permaculture design, an awareness of and respect for limits acts as a helpful antidote to this blind faith in progress with greater explanatory power for the world we find ourselves in. After all:

  • We are finite individuals with a finite life span
  • We live on a finite planet with finite resources
  • There are limits to how much I can know and understand
  • There are limits to biodiversity imposed by climate and geography
  • There are limits to the design process. At some point you must stop designing and begin implementing.
  • There are limits to technique: you can’t put a swale and a hugel mound everywhere. Techniques are not universally applicable or appropriate.
  • There are limits to industrial society, globalization, technology and democracy


There is a difference between growth, evolution and progress. Growth is a natural occurrence as any organism grows. Evolution can be beneficial when it is successful adaptation to ecological conditions. Progress in it’s highest narrative grandeur is seen as inevitable ascension toward higher forms of technological godliness where everyone gets to practice the “American Dream” of unlimited consumption. Discussion of limits is largely taboo here in industrialized North America, and so is a critique of progress. In economics there is only talk of growth and expansion (as if an ideology of cancer). In “progressive” politics social diversity, multiculturalism and openness are ends in and of themselves. In technology, it is a continuous rise of humanity from the caves to the stars. Mother Culture whispers in our ear that progress is inevitable and always good. It is taboo to disagree with the god-like thought form of progress. But that’s exactly why we should go where the taboo lies and interrogate. We should go where the shadow dwells (in the Jungian sense) to find that which is repressed or ignored. Evolution, power and wisdom could be a beneficial result. As children, limits are imposed from the outside, like from a parent or caregiver. As adults, limits and discipline are often self-imposed. As a society we need to develop sensible self-imposed limitations because if and when the Earth Mother imposes limitations on an industrial human culture grown too big for their britches, you can rest assured it will be a severe beat-down. Nature bats last, so the saying goes.

To revisit the image we started with of concentric rings with the ethics at the core, now we have the design principles, pattern literacy, strategies of implementation and techniques of management revolving around and bounded by these four ethics. Principles of good design and how to apply pattern literacy to design solutions closely follow the ethical core of permaculture. A strategic sequence of implementation is guided by clearly articulated goals and flows from principles and pattern fluency. Tools of installation and techniques of management form the final and most concrete aspects of this model. Note that tools and techniques find use once some amount of design thinking and strategic planning has occurred.

I submit to you that adding an awareness of limits as a discrete and explicit ethic of permaculture design provides a necessary antidote to the religion of progress found in many industrialized societies and will enhance our design practice and culture jamming work at this stage in our planetary history. This explicit ethic of bringing awareness to limits will help us re-member ecologically sensitive cultures rooted to living soil in the places we live. We stand for what we stand on.


Jesse Watson is a permaculture designer, teacher and builder living and working in Rockland Maine, occupied Penobscot territory. He operates Midcoast Permaculture Design (, serving residential, farm and institutional clients. He helps facilitate permaculture design certificate (PDC) courses with The Resilience Hub, based in Portland. He now serves on the board of directors of PAN, the Permaculture Association of the Northeast. He was instrumental in passing a locally binding food sovereignty ordinance in his town in May 2018 and likes to envision forest gardens in every backyard with reinvigorated and interdependent home economies.

Jason Daniels is a graphic designer living and working near the Salish Sea of Washington State. He created the illustrations in this article and you can follow him on Instagram.




Food Sovereignty as a step toward community resilience


When we want to support local agriculture we think first to plant a garden or organize a farmers market. But rarely do we take the next logical step, which is to use local law to protect that sustainable agriculture system that we’re trying to build. When we don’t take that step, agribusiness corporations step into the vacuum that’s created to monopolize food access. As our farming practices return to decentralized production, so too must the decision-making about that food.

La Via Campesina, an international peasant and indigenous farmers movement, coined the term “Food Sovereignty” in 1996 which they defined as the “right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to market forces.” Unlike the food security movement, aimed at ensuring that people have enough to eat, food sovereignty focuses on the question of who controls local food and agriculture policy. Who holds the power to determine those policies? Who sets goals and designs policy? Politicians? Corporations? Or the people directly affected by such policies?

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Let’s remember some examples of corporate attempts at control over food systems:

  • Genetic engineering and forms of biopiracy like seed patenting
  • Financial instruments preying on farmers like the revolving wheel of debt
  • Encouraging dependence on high-energy inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) often leveraging influence over university and extension agency experts to promote their use
  • Collusion with government to regulate out of existence the small family farm by insisting on a “level playing field” (that is industrial in scale). The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the latest example of this.
  • Crafting a narrative of food safety that implies all food producers are producing for national and global markets, and that all operations therefore require bureaucratic oversight and expensive equipment to ensure food safety.
  • The well-known revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies that write, implement and enforce food system policy

Big solutions to big problems often recreate the problem in a new form. Small scale solutions have the advantage of being site- and situation-specific and being more amenable to incremental organic adaptation with less risk of failure causing higher order systemic failures. For example, a local raw milk Community Supported Agriculture system has some real (very low) risk of causing illness but large scale corporate supply systems of industrial milk have created problems where large numbers of people spread across countries become sick before corrective responses can be enacted. A vision of small-scale site-specific corrective action is offered by the political project of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is based on the right of peoples to define their own food systems and to develop policies on how food is produced, distributed and consumed. It is above all a political call for action that it is based on empowerment processes and the generation of critical knowledge in support of the collective and popular construction of alternatives.

Food Sovereignty as it has emerged in Maine is the concept that people who eat and those who grow food should be at the heart of designing food systems policy instead of large-scale industrial “food commodity” manufacturers or government bureaucracies. Food sovereignty as a political movement asserts the right of people in a geographic place to grow food, save seed and exchange products of the home economy free from government interference as long as sales are direct from producer to patron. All other food production regulations apply if you are selling to retail venues like restaurants and grocery stores.

In this Friday, April 15, 2016 photo, a sign gives notice to customers at the Quill’s End Farm, a small family run operation in Penobscot, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

This concept has yielded a strategy asserting a legal space usually within a municipality where residents have the guaranteed right to save seeds, grow their own food, and exchange it with each other in face-to-face venues (like roadside stands, church potlucks, and farmer’s markets). The strategy was borne out of resisting corporate control of our food systems in our home towns using locally binding law, which is much more accessible than state or federal levels of legislation. In Maine it takes the form of municipal ordinances. These ordinances are rights-based rather than regulatory in nature.

Instead of regulating what you can and can’t do, a rights-based ordinance leverages language usually found in state constitutions that declare the inherent right of the people of a state to self-governance. Rights-based ordinances declare and secure rights in a positive and guaranteed way. In the United States, authority is often delegated throughout the varying levels of government. In home rule states, authority in matters of self-governance are decentralized to the local level, and people within a municipality can create governance as they see fit so long as it doesn’t conflict with or frustrate the purpose of higher state or federal legislation. On matters of food and water, it is sometimes unclear who has the ultimate jurisdiction to make these sorts of policy decisions. We assert that if there is any uncertainty about what polity has the decision-making authority regarding matters of food and water, that authority should devolve to the local level. Rights-based ordinances (RBOs) secure these rights over the supposed rights of corporations and claimed authority of regulatory agencies, which are often not legitimate and dominated by corporate influence. RBOs reinforce the civil and political rights of people in their communities and allow them to make determinations about the health, safety and welfare of their town.

Food sovereignty has enjoyed a good deal of success in Maine because of a number of factors. Culturally, Mainers are an independent lot and maintain traditions of homesteading, self-reliance and self-governance. Many towns practice direct democracy at the municipal level. The process for getting on the agenda before a select board or city council is straightforward, accessible and often welcome. In both statute and constitution, the state of Maine grants authority to towns to pass ordinances that deal with matters “local in nature” that affect health, safety and welfare. It would seem that there are no matters more local in nature than the procurement of food and water for general welfare. When it comes to designing food policy, the idea here is to privilege the voices of consumers and primary small-scale producers that directly feed local patrons, rather than corporate agribusiness or entrenched government bureaucracies. Many farms are small-scale family owned operations, and Maine enjoys a relatively youthful farmer demographic that is actually getting younger, bucking the national trend. There are even cases of people relocating to Maine specifically to begin an agricultural enterprise because their town has passed a food sovereignty ordinance.

Heather and Phil Retberg of Quill’s End Farm were instrumental in crafting Maine’s first food sovereignty ordinance

These food sovereignty ordinances in Maine are formally titled the Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance (LFCSGO). The LFCSGO used language from rights-based ordinances in Shapleigh and Newfield, Maine as a template. These RBOs prevented Nestle from taking water from their shared aquifer to bottle and sell back to them. These were ordinances drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which pioneered the use of RBOs in places as near as Pennsylvania and as far as Ecuador. Food freedom bill proposals from Wyoming and Florida also provided inspiration for the text of the LFCSGO. (source link)

First formulated in 2011 as a response to industrial scale food processing regulations applied to small-scale operations, the LFCSGO was first passed in Sedgwick, Penobscot and Blue Hill and quickly spread to other towns in a process called “horizontal diffusion.” A key feature is that the ordinance language is usually uniform across different towns because we all use the same ordinance template as a starting point. “Horizontal diffusion” occurs in the context of a “standard of uniformity.” When ordinances spread town-to-town across the state in a bottom-up fashion, it is helpful to selectmen, councilors, and legislators to see standardized and uniform language. If officials see a precedent from another municipality, they are more likely to adopt it.

These ordinances have always been about small scale and face-to-face sales directly to patrons of the farm. The idea of making exemptions from corporate and industrial style regulations struck a nerve with Mainers. The LFCSGO was adopted in many towns across the state as activists flooded the state capital to pass state-level legislation that mirrored the town ordinance in spirit and content. State-level bills were narrowly defeated in 2012 and 2014, and then finally in late 2017, the legislature passed what ultimately became The Maine Food Sovereignty Act. This process is called “vertical integration.” Unfortunately, it had to be amended in a special session to take some food out of “food sovereignty” because the USDA, a federal agency, claims jurisdiction over the regulations around animal slaughter. So while The Maine Food Sovereignty Act doesn’t pertain to meat sales, it does recognize and codify the long standing tradition of face-to-face sales at local venues of all other locally-produced food.

So we have a focus on local rules for local food grown by small-scale operators using bottom-up democracy in action by leveraging local, state and federal law. The exciting pattern that emerged was “horizontal policy diffusion” (influence on other localities facing similar situations) resulting in “vertical policy integration” (influence on policy design and implementation at upper political and administrative levels), largely made possible by a “standard of uniformity” (most food sovereignty ordinances use the same language set forth in the LFCSGO template). We think the time is right to spread these sorts legal strategies to help rebuild local economies, especially to other home rule states.


Why You Should Care (source link)

Industrial Agriculture Is Not Sustainable

Our current system of agriculture, which substitutes chemicals for living soil, is not sustainable. It is killing soil, creating dead zones in the oceans, pouring greenhouse gases into the environment, and destroying biodiversity. The earth is our only home, and we must learn to relate to it as a living system, not as an environment we can exploit for profit, while killing its ability to regenerate.

Corporate Agriculture Is Not Healthy

We are having epidemics of health problems created by modern agriculture, especially obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Many of these problems are the result of marketing unhealthy food directly to children. We need healthy soil to raise healthful food, both plant and animal. When food-borne pathogen outbreaks occur within our large-scale industrial system, it can make large numbers of people sick before recalls are issued.

Local Food Brings Local Prosperity

Our oligarchic food system sucks money out of our local communities and concentrates it in the hands of a few multi-national corporations. Eating locally-produced food circulates money locally and strengthens local economies. A thriving local food system means more jobs and a more vibrant and healthy economy. It also builds the resiliency needed when times get tough. Local food tastes good, too!

Food Strengthens Communities

Breaking bread together is a time-honored way of celebrating life in community. Church suppers, bake sales, Grange pig roasts, potlucks and other gatherings bring people together. It is hard to be disagreeable to people when you are all eating together! And when people care about food, they care about people and find ways to make sure that everyone gets to eat.

What you can do
Talk to your neighbors about this issue to get them interested. Rally a few friends and learn what it takes to bring legislation before your town government. Sometimes government officials will say that you can’t make these kind of policy changes. Do it anyway! Find allies both in town and in town government. Use the LFCSGO template as a starting point. If you live in Maine, you benefit by using this template because it has been passed in over 40 towns. Make sure your legislation protects sales at roadside stands, church potlucks, and farmer’s markets (all of which are allowed under the 2017 Maine Food Sovereignty Act). If you live outside of Maine, the language may largely apply, and you can customize it to make your own template to share across towns. Learn about your state’s laws and find leverage points in agricultural related statutes. Once you get familiar with the legal language, you can hone your arguments using various levels of law. After that, use the tools of rhetoric and debate to start conversations and build a local coalition to bring locally binding food sovereignty legislation to your town.


Here are a few ways to talk about food sovereignty with your neighbors

What it is

  • A rights-based ordinance, using locally binding law to secure rights for residents. It is not regulatory, does not add to responsibilities and services of government, and creates no bureaucracy. It has the force of law and goes beyond a municipal resolution or statement of support.
  • It is scale-dependent. It applies to products of the home economy. If you want to sell to restaurants or retail distributors like grocery stores, all other food production regulations can apply.
  • It is compliant with federal constitutional law, state constitutional law, and state statutes in Maine. It is a targeted application of the Home Rule law giving municipalities and counties the right to exempt direct farm-to-consumer sales, roadside farm stands, farmers markets and community potlucks from regulations designed for industrial-scale producers.
  • It is traditionalist. It protects our way of life, local culture, food sources, the right to grow and exchange food, and the right to a local food economy.

What it does

  • This reduces the regulatory burden for the small (or new) farmer. It would allow small-scale farmers to begin operating without the need to install costly commercial equipment or facilities for each separate operation.  It lowers the barrier to entry into the marketplace and allows new farmers easier access to direct-sales markets. This has tangible economic benefits by circulating money in the local economy.
  • It places emphasis on responsibility of producers and patrons. It is a push-back against the bureaucratization of everyday life, and enshrines the legitimacy of handshake deals and direct “me-to-thee” relationships.
  • “Me-to-thee” transactions are based on trust.  The local food movement is reconstituting a culture of independence, self-reliance, freedom of choice, and responsibility.  Producers are responsible for producing high-quality safe food. Consumers are responsible for the choices they make.
  • As an issue it can unite people across the political spectrum (after all, everyone has to eat!). The rhetoric of sustainability and resilience can appeal to liberals and leftists while the rhetoric of preserving tradition and independence and eliminating barriers to trade can appeal to libertarians and conservatives.
  • Localized food systems are resilient against economic, environmental, and other stressors. We don’t know what our climate, economy, or society will look like in 20 or 50 years, and we should build systems and structures (not just related to food) that will lead to prosperity in a variety of futures, some of which may involve the weakening of national and global supply lines.
  • A strong local food economy can attract people and new business to town. It will incentivize the growth of food-related business. It will reinforce your town’s position as a leader in local food culture.
  • We need more farmers and more food producers.  The food economy forms the bedrock foundation of any economy.  Without food, no one works. This ordinance would set the conditions for a much more resilient food system in Maine of small-scale distributed production and peer-to-peer sales.  This ordinance would set the conditions not only for a resilient food system, but also a more resilient localized economy.
  • It improves access to locally grown food too, by the way.

What it does not do

  • This does not apply to producers who wish to sell to a retailer or distributor like a restaurant or grocery store.  Again, it is a scale-dependent idea.
  • It does not exempt the municipality as a whole from state and federal food regulations. It only exempts small-scale growers making direct-to-patron transactions.
  • It is not without risks. We can’t protect people from everything.  The preferred yardstick in the discussion of risk analysis is raw vs. pasteurized milk. Your risk of being struck by lightning is greater than your risk of getting sick from raw milk. The risk you take every day driving in a car is greater. The risks to food safety are overblown by fear mongering, especially given the food pathogen outbreaks already common to our globalized, industrial food commodity system that can poison large numbers of people.

We’ve tried big, centralized food manufacturing, now let’s try local and decentralized food culture, as we have for most of human history! This sort of ordinance creates the legal space for products of the home economy to easily change hands between neighbors. Ultimately this ordinance that enshrines food sovereignty stems from a vision of how we can structure society to meet our basic needs. A broad sketch of this vision looks small in scale, localized, decentralized, with food production distributed throughout the landscape. The vision we find most attractive comes from agroecology and permaculture design that incorporates good landscape design with perennial food producing trees, shrubs and herbs. We imagine biologically diverse garden landscapes in every back yard with fruits, nuts and spices dripping from the branches and poultry or some other small livestock foraging in the understory. This vision integrates biological diversity with economic resilience and personal responsibility. The resources to help you pass an ordinance like this are ready to hand.

Please reach out and pass one in your town!

Further reading:
Templates and organizing resources for creating food sovereignty ordinances in your town

Deep back story of food sovereignty

This issue of Justice Rising is packed with information about the local food ordinance and some of the important issues that are related to it.

This article traces the history of how meat production, processing, and distribution was made possible by USDA regulation
This article traces a longer history including the emergence of the supermarket, as well as the constitutional basis for food sovereignty as an inalienable right

Home Rule in the United States

List of New England Home Rule States:



Rhode Island



New York

New Jersey



Notable absences


New Hampshire


Jesse Watson is a permaculture designer, teacher and builder living and working in Rockland Maine, where we passed the LFCSGO in May 2018. He operates Midcoast Permaculture Design (, serving residential, farm and institutional clients. He helps facilitate permaculture design certificate (PDC) courses with The Resilience Hub, based in Portland. He now serves on the board of directors of PAN, the Permaculture Association of the Northeast.

Who should control our food system?

By Nathan Davis and Jesse Labbe-Watson | Dec 01, 2016       Original link

This question is at the core of the movement for food sovereignty in Maine and around the world. Food sovereignty is the assertion of local control over our food system, and the assertion against control by big agribusiness and nonlocal corporate interests. Eighteen municipalities in Maine have passed food sovereignty ordinances, and food sovereignty is now before the Rockland City Council. Rockland would be the largest community in Maine to pass a food sovereignty ordinance, and the first city to do so. We strongly support food sovereignty, and we think that the proposed food sovereignty ordinance deserves the Council’s support.

The movement for food sovereignty in Maine began in 2009, when Heather Retberg at Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot wanted to sell raw milk directly to her neighbors. She became frustrated when state regulators required her to obtain a permit that would have demanded expensive investment far beyond what her small-scale sales could justify. It seemed ludicrous that regulations created for and by the factory farm industry would be applied to neighbor-to-neighbor transactions. So Heather and other like-minded farmers and consumers drafted what became the first food sovereignty ordinance in the state. This ordinance has become a model for ordinances in communities throughout Maine, including the one before our City Council.

The preamble to the ordinance begins as follows: “We the People of Rockland, Knox County, Maine have the right to grow, produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of our local food economy, family farms, and local food traditions.” It then continues with philosophical and legal justification (drawing upon the Maine Constitution and Maine Revised Statutes) before arriving at the core statements of law: “Producers or processors of local foods in the City of Rockland are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the transaction is only between the producer or processor and a patron when the food is sold for home consumption”; and “Producers or processors of local foods in the City of Rockland are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that their products are prepared for, consumed, or sold at a community social event.” The ordinance thus covers only transactions in which there is little or no separation between producer and consumer. It applies to neither third-party distributors, grocery stores, nor restaurants. It relies on – and strengthens – the feedback loops and bonds of community that nourish local business and form the fabric of traditional Maine life.

Food sovereignty supports economic development, environmental sustainability, community resilience, food security, local control, and individual liberty:

  • It combats control of our food and our government by large unaccountable corporations. It’s no secret that big agribusiness drives government food policy. As President Obama stated in a recent interview, “For a long time, agribusiness has had obviously a prominent seat at the table in Congress. It’s bipartisan.” Food sovereignty aims to remove regulatory burdens appropriate to large industrial-scale food production from small farms and producers (and ONLY from small farms and producers).
  • Huge monoculture farms produce well-documented negative environmental effects. Food sovereignty encourages diverse, small crops rather than uniform, large ones. It promotes active and careful stewardship of our farmland and natural resources by encouraging tight feedback loops between patrons and farmers.
  • Localized food systems are resilient against economic, environmental, and other stressors. We don’t know what our climate, economy, or society will look like in 20 or 50 years, and we should build systems and structures (not just related to food) that will lead to prosperity in a variety of futures, some of which may involve the weakening of national and global supply lines.
  • A food sovereignty ordinance in Rockland would reinforce our position as a leader in local food culture, which attracts visitors, new residents, and investment to our community.
  • Food sovereignty preserves Maine’s traditional food heritage and folkways, which are among the reasons that Maine is a great place to live.
  • Food sovereignty guarantees in local law the right for people to choose where they obtain their food and how that food is produced. If you want to get your food from a big store, you can do that. If you want to support a young farmer in the startup phase of their business, you are free to do that as well. A food sovereignty ordinance reduces the capital-intensive barriers to entry that many small farmers struggle with and also codifies the right of farmers to be able to sell directly to patrons who willingly support them.
  • Local law is the next frontier and most powerful current tool for protecting a sustainable agriculture system made resilient by diversified small-scale producers exercising their own right to self-determination.
  • This ordinance supports local businesses in the growing agricultural sector of Maine’s economy. By extension, it supports all local businesses, because if people can’t eat nourishing food, they can’t work or live here.

You may have heard of the “Farmer Brown” case decided by the Maine Supreme Court in 2014 against a seller of raw milk in Blue Hill. Contrary to some accounts, the Court did NOT strike down the food sovereignty ordinance in Blue Hill, nor did it strike down any food sovereignty ordinance elsewhere. Rockland would not contravene the Court’s decision by passing this ordinance. Government regulations around food safety arose in the early 1900s in response to centralized industrial meatpacking plants and have never been designed for small-scale direct farm-to-patron sales. The original motivation for food safety regulations like the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1907 was for government to provide oversight in situations where the consumer could not do that for themselves. A food sovereignty ordinance clarifies where government oversight is needed and where it isn’t. Under this ordinance, direct patrons of local farms would essentially regulate how farms produce food by taking their business to farms they trust in a true free market.

Food is one of the most immediate and intimate aspects of human life. Let’s celebrate that immediacy rather than ceding it to structures and systems built to mitigate the worst aspects of the industrial food systems of the past. Small farms drive Maine’s economy and attract young people to our state, and their numbers are increasing. Let’s keep it that way.

Nathan Davis and Jesse Labbe-Watson both live in Rockland. Davis is a co-founder of Renew Rockland, which has proposed a food sovereignty ordinance for the city. Labbe-Watson is the founder of Midcoast Permaculture, current board president of the Permaculture Association of the Northeast, and an expert in designing and building regenerative food systems for home and farm clients.


Why set goals?

The first step in any good design process is to clearly define our goals for the project.  A clear grasp of goals helps us to hold a vision, make design and implementation decisions and strategically allocate limited resources.  The goal helps us orient our actions in the right direction.  This way we can distinguish between which elements are the right fit for the right place or which actions take us toward our goal versus away from it.  A good goal consists of a couple sentences that clearly articulate a statement of purpose.  This is different from an element or list of elements that might go into the system.

Here’s an example: if i ask you what your goal is and you say “i want to grow apples,” this is a good start but we’re not quite there yet.  Apples would be an element in the system and the system overall would be oriented to some larger goal.  So i might ask you “why do you want to grow apples?”  After you think about it you might say that apples are a good fruit crop for our climate and you like to eat apples.  Underneath the desire for apples we get closer to the goal, which is why i might ask “why?” a few times.  In this case you want to grow apples because you want to grow your own food in a manner that is a good fit for our climate.  So a couple goals we can infer are 1) to grow your own food and 2) to adapt to the existing climate.
Goals can be summarized into a few sentences like in a holistic goal statement or they can be summarized in a list of bullet points.  If it’s in a list of bullet points it’s important to remain focused on the deeper desires for why we want to do a thing rather than list out a bunch of elements.  A wish list is also a useful exercise, but it’s best to separate that list from the goals.  A clear understanding of goals help us to decide whether an element on a wish list is really necessary or if we can come up with a different solution to some design challenge.

Another example might be where a client says to me that they really want hugelkultur beds.  Hugelkultur is a great way to turn rotting waste wood into viable garden beds, but it is a fairly significant construction project.  After a discussion about why they landed on the element of hugelkultur we discover that the underlying desire is to manage water, make use of waste wood and turn it into an asset like growing space.  Once we discover that the primary goal is to manage water, we may decide that it makes more sense to cut swales based on site conditions, soil types, volume of water and financial resources.

Clear vision and goals helps us make strategic decisions, allocate limited resources, and pivot to the most appropriate design solution.  A focus on goals allows us to remain somewhat non-attached to specific elements so that we can focus instead on solving design challenges with the most appropriate strategies based on site conditions and other constraints.
IMG_2014 copy

Invasive species or invasive culture?

Look, i clearly understand that there are invasive and noxious weeds that can have negative consequences on ecosystems, but we have to grok that this is a consequence of living in the Anthropocene. There are complex dynamics afoot in the “invasive” species debate that include ecology, economics, ethics and psychology. Our European ancestors are responsible for much of the introduced species. Some good, some bad. While purple loosestrife is problematic, can the same be said for the honeybee or apple tree or earthworm? And over a long enough time span, don’t ecosystems eventually find balance after a disturbance? Ecologically speaking it seems that the effects of “invasive species” are a mixed bag usually coming down to semantics and whether or not a new introduction is labeled with the epithet.

While ecological disturbance is a problem, we can’t blame it all on “invasive species.” How about this: if you want to blame ecosystem damage on one simplistic thing, blame it on “invasive culture” which is more to the point. You can’t demonize plants for reproducing themselves in the ways they evolved. They just happen to be in new places where (often) people of European descent introduced them by building their conception of society.

So while there is ecology involved with the disturbing effects of opportunistic and aggressive species, so too are economics. It’s big business to try and eradicate these plants and “restore” the “native” ecosystem. But the concept of restoring a native ecosystem is flawed because it starts at an arbitrary point in history (before Columbus) and then presumes that that “pristine” ecosystem was somehow static. But we all know that ecosystems are constantly changing and evolving and species move all over, sometimes with the help of humans and sometimes not.

In eradication efforts, while mechanical and hand removal labor costs add up over time, herbicides wind up looking like the cheaper option to land managers (government, conservation groups, land trusts, farmers, etc). So a beneficiary of the concept of invasive eradication is herbicide companies like Monsanto. That’s an economic consideration in this debate, which then yields a feedback loop to exaggerated ecological and economic damage in order to justify large orders of herbicides. The cozy relationships between big business and universities is no secret.

An ethical component comes down to the question of who controls ecosystems? Or what is our duty of care if we introduce species that disturb ecosystems? In order to answer those questions you have to ask the larger philosophical question of what is our role or place or position in nature? Should we be humble or authoritarian in our answers? Should we seek to control nature or find some other kind of balance?

As far as the psychological dimension, we would be foolish to overlook the grief and guilt associated with the disturbance that nuisance species create. In some ways i think we project the drama and tragedy of the process of colonization onto the ecological dynamics here. Where the demonized “invaders” are wiping out the preferred “natives.” In order to protect the natives we must wage war on the invaders, and the resulting efforts are somehow a sideways (if white savior) attempt at a collective reconciliation for the genocide of Native American peoples. While this might not be front and center for most people in the invasive species debate, i think it is a part of it.

Here is a book review that covers some of this nuance. It’s important to emphasize again that all of these dynamics are present in the debate with different amounts of weight behind them, depending on who is doing the talking.

This article takes a deeper dive into the psychological dynamics of guilt, fear and disgust with invasive species and new introductions.  There is a short ideological bridge from invasive species to xenophobia and racism.



Decolonizing Permaculture

This article was originally printed in Permaculture Design Magazine (formerly Permaculture Activist) issue #98, Winter 2015.  Thanks to everyone who contributed to this issue.

Exploring the Intersection of Permaculture and Decolonization

This article is meant as a primer on decolonization in a contemporary North American context, written specifically for permaculture designers, teachers, activists and gardeners. It is offered so that we may think critically and philosophically about “sustainability” and our role in our culture as designers of novel ecosystems.

In this article we will seek to answer the following questions: of What is decolonization? Why should permaculture designers care? What is my experience with this topic? We will attempt to make a clear critique of settler colonialism here in industrialized North America, and demonstrate how we can simultaneously be both victims and perpetuators of settler colonialism.  As a bridge to the challenge of bringing a decolonization framework into permaculture practice and pedagogy, I would like to start by mapping those same questions onto permaculture itself.

As a quick thumbnail sketch, permaculture is an ecological approach to the design of whole systems. It is an ethically bounded framework of ecological design that can be used to design everything from landscapes and farms to business enterprises and other cultural projects, on nearly any scale. On the surface, permaculture is often about designing eco-groovy, perennially edible landscapes, gardens and farms. On a deeper level, permaculture is about the conscious design of ecological cultures. As a design process, permaculture can be used to design both outer and inner landscapes, using observation as the preeminent tool for understanding. We would do well to reflect on our role as ecosystem designers and designers of ecological culture, and to think of ourselves in our design and organizing work as “culture jammers.”[i] What then, are some responsibilities here (vis a vis EarthCare, PeopleCare, FutureCare)? How we behave and interact with our ecosystems matters.

Herb spiral built during a permablitz in Micmac country near Presque Isle, Maine

Micmac girl and her grandmother working on a herb spiral built during a permablitz in Micmac country near Presque Isle, Maine

The reason this matters is because the industrial systems we are embedded within and dependent upon are often deeply flawed and corrupt, in addition to being quite brittle. Whether we turn our observational gaze to food systems, energy systems or economic and political systems, they are all overdue for a radical ecological revision. The interactions between climate change, energy peak and economic contraction mean that the stakes are very high. Whether considering energy systems of production and distribution or agricultural systems of production and distribution, when we examine them critically we can see that these systems are brittle and capable of breakdowns at many pinch points. And it isn’t even accurate to say merely that the economic-political system is flawed, because it seems more accurate to say that it is deeply corrupt. Or perhaps it’s designed to function exactly as its functioning now: to keep the poor and disenfranchised firmly separated from the elites, and to maintain this oppressive distribution of power.

 …permaculture gives us the ability to heal and regenerate ecosystems through “right relationship” to all the other beings around us…

Permaculture is a process of understanding, analyzing and designing systems. By using this lens of understanding, you can look at these systems and choose your leverage points. If you have access to land use, permaculture allows you to design perennial systems of regenerative food production that are much more resilient than annual-based agricultural systems of food production. Permaculture allows us to design productive loops of synergies between our technologically built environments and the surrounding ecologies within which we live. Think of it as regenerative design that heals and repairs ecosystems while at the same time producing beneficial yields. Through this process of the design and management of ecosystems, we can regenerate ecological health by weaving patterns of beneficial relationships in ecosystems. Permaculture gives us the ability to design resilient homesteads, farms, villages, towns and economies so that we have the ability to weather the storms that come our way, whether they are economic or ecological in nature. More importantly, though, permaculture gives us the ability to heal and regenerate ecosystems through “right relationship” to all the other beings around us: plants, animals (including humans), wind, water, rocks, soils and so on.

I am a permaculture designer, gardener, activist and teacher. The body-mind this go-around happens to be in the form of a cis-male of northern European ancestry (from the British Isles and Scandinavia). My ancestors came from cool temperate and cold northern climates. My family and I currently reside in occupied Penobscot territory, known as Midcoast Maine in the industrial nation-state known today as the United States (and this too, shall pass). I come from a background of union activism, art & philosophy, direct-action environmentalism, public school education, and building trades. I’m living out a version of the “American Dream” with an eco-groovy veneer here on my one-acre permaculture demonstration site where we manage small scale agroforestry systems with poultry as integrated livestock. My lineage of permaculture teachers includes Charles & Julia Yelton and Lisa Fernandes of the Resilience Hub. My lineage of earth skills teachers includes Mike Douglas and Mal Stevens of the Maine Primitive Skills School. I maintain a permaculture design/build practice for residential and farm clients. I help to facilitate and teach Permaculture Design Certification courses (PDCs) here in Maine and sometimes in Boston, partnering with the Resilience Hub. I serve the larger Northeast regional network by being an active participant on the board of PINE, the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast. My economic forms of production include designing, teaching, gardening and construction trades (carpentry, painting).

I am here to learn how to be of better service to all people. I’m here to help make the world a more just and sustainable place for my daughter and all the other children in the world, those alive today as well as those of future generations. I’m here to learn how to be a good ancestor. I’m also here because I dream of a world free of the industrial nation-state. I see an agenda of decolonization coupled with land use based on permaculture design as a positive way forward toward a time of greater ecological and social health, in which we may rediscover how to live in right relationship to a place while simultaneously repairing and healing historic crimes against humanity.

I became aware of the topic of decolonization a year ago. It was a topic whose initial catalyst came from Rafter Sass Ferguson’s article, ”Critical Questions, Early Answers,” which is an overview of the permaculture movement.[ii] In this article he interprets the racial homogeneity of the permaculture movement as a vulnerability. He suggests that the response to this weakness should not be one of recruitment or tokenism, but rather requires some deeper reflection on how we can be relevant to communities of color. While it’s a challenge, it’s also a tremendous opportunity. It’s also important to remember that no group of people is monolithic, whether we are talking about the permaculture movement, people of color, or Native American peoples.

As I reflected on how I could be relevant to communities of color close to where I am located in rural Maine (which is mostly white), I started thinking about making bridges with Native American communities to the north. As I ruminated on the difference between recruitment, green missionary work, and relevance, I also started to ask how I could use my privilege and agency (as a white cis-male) to be an ally to marginalized Native communities. I reached out to my close friends and eventually we found an article titled “Decolonization is not a metaphor”.[iii]

 How can we expect to design a regenerative legacy for our descendants if we haven’t yet made peace with the ancestors?

In a literal and legal sense, decolonization “brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.”[iv] It is important to note here that Native American peoples are not mythical relics of the precolonial or pre-Columbian Americas. They are not extinct. Native people continue to live and many continue to tend their council fires, which have been maintained for hundreds of continuous years. Many of them continue to resist the process of settler colonization and assimilation. Decolonization is about upholding longstanding treaties, adherence to international law, and the return of genuine sovereignty and the administration of land use to First Nations peoples. Decolonization is about correcting past crimes committed by (mostly) European settlers by returning “stolen” land.[v] Ideally this process should be done without strings attached. Questions of what happens to present settler peoples is secondary to the act of returning Native land to Native peoples. It is this facet of decolonization which strikes fear into the hearts of most settler peoples because it offers no firm guarantee of a settler futurity. In an ideal process here in North America, determining the future of settler people would be a separate process of negotiation between the newly repatriated indigenous governance structure and the settler peoples. This concept is complicated by the fact that the ancestors of some settlers of color have been brought here against their will, in the slave trade or as indentured servants. This is known as the “tangled triad” of settler—native—settler of color.[vi] And while settlers of color may experience systematic oppression at the hands of the currently designed economic-political system, they are also settler people and not members of the First Nations. And because of this they have a stake in the continuity of the colonial project.

How can we tend our own council fires in service to the community?

How can we tend our own council fires in service to the community?

How can we expect to be designers of ecological culture if we don’t have a clear understanding of our past? How can we expect to design a regenerative legacy for our descendants if we haven’t yet made peace with the ancestors? If permaculture has as its ethical foundation Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share or Future Care, what do those words mean in this light, given the fact that people like me passively benefit from systematic forms of oppression and genocide that continue today?

In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke talked about the generative or degenerative potential that disturbance plays in ecosystem dynamics.  As a principle for ecosystem design and care he talked about “shifting the burden to the intervenor.”[vii]  So that when we decide to fall trees or sheet mulch so that we can plant forest gardens, the responsibility of managing the consequences of that disturbance falls to the gardener who intervened.  I consider this principle when recognizing how I passively benefit from the actions that my ancestors probably took to help construct this oppressive and exploitative system.  It informs how I think about what part I can play to heal historical traumas.  If “responsibility falls to the intervenor,” how does that affect contemporary land ownership for those who can afford it?  How should this principle inform the actions of ethical people who benefit from skin and gender privilege in general?  I don’t have any firm answers, but I know that asking these difficult questions causes an uneasy and unsettling feeling.  It seems the observation of the tension in considering these questions of land ownership/stewardship in light of this historical and contemporary inheritance is important.  If we genuinely care about the regeneration of ecosystems and culture, we should talk more openly about this tension of “owning” “stolen” land,[viii] especially when seeking relationships with contemporary Native peoples.

In another sense, a cultural sense, decolonization is about the process of removing colonizing thoughts from your own mind and colonizing behavior from your own lifeway. In this sense, there is broad overlap between movements for social justice and anti-racism. For me, it is a process of learning how I passively benefit from my racial and gender privilege. It is a process of unlearning racist and white supremacist ideas and behaviors, some of which I wasn’t consciously aware were in my head. For me, it is a process of working through my grief over the crimes my ancestors may very well have committed. It is about learning what it means to be an ally, how to listen (especially when what I hear is emotionally challenging), and learning to give thanks always.We have to decolonize our minds before we can decolonize Native North America. We have to remove the empire from our heads before we can remove the empire from any land base.

This matters because an injury to one is an injury to all. I know that sounds trite and cliche, but that’s because it’s a truism. The industrial nation-state is an omnicidal machine, and it eats everything. The industrial machine is genocidal because it kills off whole nations and peoples. This machine is ecocidal because it destroys mountaintops and water wells with fracking and coal mining. Right now it doesn’t make a prominent habit of eating white cis-dudes because it’s busy making a habit of disenfranchising people of color, women, queer peoples and all those ‘others.’ But as these brittle industrial systems fall apart as a result of climate change or energy shortages, those ‘others’ can always be redefined to include me or you. So “an injury to one is an injury to all” should be understood in light of Neimoller’s poem “First they came for the Socialists…”:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Decolonization matters because of mountaintop removal, water mining and fracking. If resource extraction or industrial infrastructure needs to happen, none of us are immune to being displaced. If it’s under your house and the machine needs it, it cares not who you are. It will get those resources and eat you along with them, if need be. Think of decolonization as another form of enlightened self-interest.

 We have to remove the empire from our heads before we can remove the empire from any land base.

Decolonization matters because it is the right thing to do in a moral sense. It gives the ethic of ‘People Care’ teeth. Ferguson points out that the mostly homogenous demographic makeup of the permaculture movement is a weakness. Recruitment is disingenuous. We need to be relevant. Decolonization allows for a framework of relevance as long as we have the courage to heal our “White Fragility”[ix] and face the realities of a white supremacist economic-political system. And if we have privilege and agency within that unjust and atrocious system, we must commit to using that access to dismantle that system.

I submit that the framework of decolonization would also save permaculture from being one more happy-faced, green, eco-groovy front for the project of genocide. This framework would help us discern between solidarity projects and green-missionary projects, both here and abroad. This lack of discernment is a blind spot. What good does it do to impose a forest garden somewhere if it isn’t a good cultural fit, or if the design process isn’t sufficiently inclusive? Such a project is nothing more than another form of imposition upon the locals by another foreign interest.

 Permaculture allows us to remember how to be in right relationship to place.

Some open questions I still have revolve around issues of permaculture and its relationship to colonization. To what extent is permaculture a product of a settler people? Permaculture certainly appears to have been assembled from toolkits from all over the world and throughout history. And while that seems “progressive” or “cosmopolitan,” are there instances where design principles or techniques associated with permaculture were misappropriated from indigenous peoples without their permission? To what extent is permaculture practiced as a form of “green missionary work” throughout the world? While I get excited about the National Agroforestry Center looking into ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ (TEK) with the interest of transitioning tillage-based agriculture to perennial agricultural systems, I can’t help but notice the potential for inadvertent colonial appropriation.[x] In this case, settler peoples are studying and applying indigenous forms of land management, which can be positive as long as the tools and techniques are willingly shared by the indigenous peoples and not brashly stolen, like they have been so many other times throughout history. Clearly we’re doing important work with permaculture, so I want to separate the baby from the bathwater. This critique is offered to make the evolution of our movement cleaner and more respectful of indigenous cultures, and to find a way to balance “Leaver and Taker”[xi] cultures, maybe even to unify them.

An example of a novel ecosystem with forest garden polycultures and a diversity of plants and flowers

An example of a novel ecosystem with forest garden polycultures and a diversity of plants and flowers

Once, during a presentation I said, “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be indigenous to a place.” It was a meme I had seen elsewhere, but I instantly felt skeevy after repeating it and vowed to never say it again. In the sense of some kinds of strict land management and home economics, it’s kind of true. But I realized that saying that sentence, especially to a room full of (mostly) white people, has the effect of erasing the lived experience of contemporary indigenous North American people. The tragedy is that such thinking offers permaculturist white people the opportunity to replace those indigenes and complete the project of settler colonialism, without those permies realizing that they’re doing so.

We now approach a closely related topic that, while important, is big enough that it warrants a separate article. Though there isn’t enough space to properly tackle the subject in this article, it still warrants a brief mention here. How do we remember that we are all indigenous to this planet, our Earth Mother, our Gaia? We all have indigenous ancestors, and they were once colonized too. How can we translate and communicate that to members of our colonial culture who may have forgotten? In light of Earth Care, People Care and Future Care, how can this be a valuable concept? (Think solidarity, being an ally, healing white fragility). How can it be a misappropriated concept? (Think of “Rainbow family”, New Age “Plastic Shamans”, and “pretindians”.)[xii] [xiii]

In my work regionally in the Northeast Permaculture network, one proposal that has emerged is that we consciously refrain from self-applying the term ‘indigenous’ if we are not actually indigenous to Native North or South America. So instead of making a statement like “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be indigenous to place,” we should choose other language. The reason for this relates to a concept in the article “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” which the authors call “settler moves to innocence.” A move to innocence is a diversionary attempt by a settler person to absolve themself of the guilt of living on stolen land using some form of catharsis, without actually addressing the difficult societal structures involved. So saying something like “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be indigenous to a place” makes a metaphor of indigeneity and thereby erases the lived experience of real peoples who are actually indigenous to Native America and who still resist the campaigns of genocide and expropriation of land and resources that continue to this day. Instead we can deploy an alternate sentence, such as “Permaculture allows us to remember how to be in right relationship to place.” This phrase contains a subtle but profound difference, one that relinquishes the settler colonial replacement strategy.

Another proposal is that we should seek genuine and longstanding relationships with existing First Nations. We should ask how we can be relevant to their lives, and ask for permission and endorsement of our activities and events. We should listen with humility when we are challenged over our privilege or unexamined racism. We need to be aware of white fragility if we start feeling defensive during racially charged conversations. We need to give thanks always. During events like the regional Convergence, we might make an offering at the beginning to acknowledge who the indigenous peoples are who live/d on the land we are now occupying. And when we publicly use ceremonies or songs from other cultures, we must be absolutely clear exactly how we got permission to use those ceremonies or songs.

And finally, what does the decolonization of Native North America look like? How do we organize for that kind of vision or dream? How do we incorporate righting this egregious, unresolved, and ongoing historical crime into our culture jamming work? How do you organize and convince White, Black and Yellow people into giving their land back to the Red Nations from which all this land was stolen? As designers of “bioculturally diverse ecosystems,”[xiv] how can we accomplish our goals of cultural, ecological and economic sustainability without contributing to the erasure of indigenous people and their lived experiences?

These are a few thoughts I’m left with. I don’t have any answers, but I do care deeply about being a good neighbor and a good ancestor to my descendants. I am deeply grateful for the space to explore this important topic in these pages, and I am grateful to the other participants in this conversation for their help in unpacking these ideas and figuring out how to apply them to our permaculture organizing efforts. Onward to regeneration of healthy systems!

Special thanks to my dear friend Kiarna Boyd for holding me accountable to a high standard and compassionately aiding my evolution in this area. Special thanks also to gkisedtanamoogk (Wampanoag nation), Canupa Gluha Mani (Lakota nation), and Ana Oian Amets (Aquitainian proto-Basque ancestral recovery) for the same.

Jesse Watson is a permaculture designer, teacher and builder living and working in Midcoast Maine, occupied Penobscot territory. He operates Midcoast Permaculture Design (, serving residential and farm clients. He helps facilitate PDCs with Lisa Fernandes of The Resilience Hub. Jesse helped organize the Northeast Permaculture Convergence as the principal logistics coordinator in 2010 and 2014. He now serves as president of the board of PINE, the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast.



[i] “Culture jamming is an intriguing form of political communication that has emerged in response to the commercial isolation of public life. Practitioners of culture jamming argue that culture, politics, and social values have been bent by saturated commercial environments…Culture jamming presents a variety of interesting communication strategies that play with the branded images and icons of consumer culture to make consumers aware of surrounding problems and diverse cultural experiences that warrant their attention…Many culture jams are simply aimed at exposing questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture so that people can momentarily consider the branded environment in which they live.”

Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, “Culture Jamming and Meme-based Communication.”

[ii] Rafter Sass Ferguson, ”Critical Questions, Early Answers,” Permaculture Activist 93 (Autumn 2014):

Cover of Decolonization Magazine

Cover of Decolonization Magazine no. 1, 2012

[iii] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012) 1-40,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] I used quotes around “stolen” because many indigenous cultures reject the concept of land ownership familiar to European peoples. Nonetheless, to the degree that Native land use and sovereignty of their own cultural affairs has been removed by force, there is traction in the use of the word “stolen.”

[vi] Tuck and Yang, 2012.

[vii] Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier, Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 1, pg 20 (Chelsea Green, 2005).

[viii] See (5) above.

[ix] White fragility: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”

Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70.

Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism,” The Good Men Project, April 9, 2015:

[x] Colleen Rossier and Frank Lake, “Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Agroforestry,” Agroforestry Notes 44 (May 2014):

[xi] Daniel Quinn, Ishmael (Bantam/Turner, 1992) and Beyond Civilization (Harmony, 1999). The shorthand is that “Takers” are people of industrialized growth-based societies and “Leavers” are people of tribal, small-scale, village-based or nomadic societies.

[xii] Simon-Moya Smith, “Here Come the Hippies: Oglala Lakota Tell Rainbow Family to Behave in Sacred Black Hills,” Indian Country Today Media Network, June 23, 2015,

Wikipedia; Wikipedia’s “Plastic shaman” entry;

FreeFactFinder; FreeFactFinder’s “Pretindian” entry;

[xiii] Here are some more difficult questions: How is misappropriation different from the meme-swapping that happens when cultures naturally interact? To what spheres of human culture does misappropriation apply? How is cultural appropriation viewed from these different perspectives: culinary, linguistic, economic, technological, ethnobotanical, ceremonial, and magical? Which are tolerated, and which aren’t? How is the answer complicated when a colonial culture is dysfunctional in terms of its ethics, morals, worldview, meaning, and community values? If we want to remember a spiritual or mythic relationship to land base and ecosystems, how can reconstructionist and syncretic spiritual movements happen in a context that is fearful of misappropriation? How can we ask our ancestors for guidance?

[xiv] Rossier and Lake, 2014