URBANA, IL -- Permaculture is a grassroots movement whose participants attempt to live in a sustainable way, taking inspiration from natural ecosystems to “live off the land.” For example, permaculture enthusiasts may grow seasonal organic produce fertilized with manure from livestock raised on their own land, rather than bringing in synthetic fertilizers or annual crop seeds from elsewhere. The idea is to rely as much as possible on perennial crops, to recycle and reuse materials, and reduce waste.
Although permaculture principles are well established, the movement has not been studied in a systematic way. University of Illinois landscape agroecologist Sarah Taylor Lovell and graduate student Rafter Ferguson set out to explore who is participating. They hope to provide insights into permaculture’s potential for growth and its influence on the larger sustainability movement.
After examining survey responses from 731 English-speaking permaculture participants across 45 countries, their results show that vast majority of participants are white. In countries where racial disparities are greater, fewer people of color are participating than in countries with less inequality.
“The absence of people of color in our survey results seems to be problematic across a lot of environmental movements,” Lovell says. “It may be that people of color might not identify with the term ‘permaculture’, even though they might be practicing something very similar,” she adds. “In an earlier study, we found a lot of participation by several urban ethnic groups in permaculture-like home gardening.”
The survey also reveals that just over half of the respondents are women. This apparent parity is tempered by the discovery that women are disproportionately excluded from professional roles in the movement. These are usually paid positions that range from consultant to teacher to designer.
“Our results reflect what we see in general. Even where women are close to matching the number of men working in an organization, we see that they often aren’t in the leadership roles. For women to be lifted up within the permaculture movement, there has to be more thought about purposefully putting women in those roles,” Lovell notes.
The study examined socioeconomic factors, and generally found that participants in the permaculture movement tend to be of intermediate or high socioeconomic status. The influence of particular socioeconomic factors differed. For example, income was relatively low, but the level of education and homeownership were higher than national averages.
“The most interesting thing that came out of the study, for me, was seeing how very complex these relationships are, and how many interactions there are between gender, socioeconomic status, and the different roles within the movement,” Lovell says.
So, what does all this mean for the future of permaculture?
“The factors limiting diversity and equality in permaculture must be addressed thoughtfully and systematically if the movement is to grow and contribute to sustainability in a meaningful way,” Lovell says.
The article, “Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability: Diversity and modes of participation in the international permaculture movement,” is published in Ecology and Society and can be read at www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol20/iss4/art39/.