Permaculture or Spermaculture?
Confronting patriarchy in permaculture and alternative food movements
For Halena Seiferling, a master’s of policy studies student at Simon Fraser University, it’s a question generated not from facts or statistics, but from one of the most essential principles of permaculture: observation.
“I started to wonder about some of the voices, typically male, that were leading the conversation about challenging local food systems,” Seiferling says. “They seemed to favour liberalism over facing and actually addressing social injustice.”
Seiferling began her permaculture education four years ago in Cuba, the island nation that’s been internationally recognized for surviving a crash in oil imports (following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989) in part by undoing and diversifying conventional agriculture, and also by institutionalizing permaculture, a holistic and sustainable food systems design for achieving “permanent culture.”
In May 2011, Seiferling was among 10 Canadian women selected to participate in a permaculture design course (PDC) at the Antonio Nuñez Jímenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ) in Sancti Spiritus. Together, the Canadian women collaborated with Cuban permaculturalists to design and transform a peri-urban farm into a permaculture system, integrating ethics of transforming waste into wealth and maximizing biodiversity.
“The Cubans were surprised that our group was made up of women only,” recalls Seiferling.
But the program’s Canadian coordinator, Ron Berezan, a permaculture designer and instructor with The Urban Farmer in Powell River, B.C., was not at all surprised by the gender imbalance in Seiferling’s program.
“In most [permaculture design] courses I’ve taught and organized, there have been more female students than male students. It’s actually disconcerting to me that we can’t get more men to take the courses,” says Berezan, who’s been teaching permaculture in western Canada and Cuba for almost 10 years.
“But why is it that when men get into the stream of this movement they absorb a lot of the leadership? Of course, I have to count myself among them,” he adds.
It’s a question that’s beginning to surface more frequently in the minds and actions of female and male permaculturists and food producers alike in North America: are alternative food systems and movements shaped and dominated by the leadership of men?
Bonita Ford is a permaculture design instructor and co-founder of the Permaculture Institute of Eastern Ontario. Ford is a woman of colour and says that she has not personally felt held back from any experience in her permaculture career because of her identity.
“I look through the lens of gender, ethnicity, and culture in different areas of my life,” says Ford, “And it recently came up again through the permaculture community.”
In 2013, Ford attended a workshop for women in permaculture organized by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.
She recalled an activity that made her “open [her] eyes,” whereby facilitators asked women to answer a series of questions about women’s involvement in and contribution to permaculture in their communities by voting with their feet and taking a step forward. Though she had “sensed it” before, Ford was surprised by the visible results of the activity.
“It was interesting to see that mini-collection of data,” says Ford.
“That spread of, yes, women do show up as teachers, women do show up as authors, but less than men, and where women are most actively involved right now around community involvement … they are not getting paid for it.”
“It’s a reflection of what we see historically in society,” Ford comments. “Women take on roles that are important yet not compensated or recognized [by society].”
Ford and other permaculturists claim women’s contributions to the permaculture and local food system movements are immense, yet they are under-represented in forms of dissemination and recognition, including at conferences and in courses, textbooks, and online.
“The higher superstar permaculture teachers are almost always men,” agrees Berezan, who casts a look back at the original founders of the permaculture movement who, he says, could be described as the “permaculture patriarchs.”
In 1978, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two white Australian men, synthesized various facets of existing sustainable agriculture principles into what they termed “permaculture.”
Although described as a decentralized movement, it would be easy, even for an outsider, to argue that white male leadership continues to shape Western permaculture. A simple Google image search of “permaculture instructors” brings up over 50 per cent more white males than female, Indigenous, or visible minority instructors.
The more contemporary superstars of permaculture could include Geoff Lawton, the Greening the Desert food forestry guru, along with Joel Salatin, an American family farmer and outspoken advocate for locally raised food.
Lawton recently launched an online permaculture course, challenging the traditional 14-day Permaculture Design Certificate course, which, according to Berezan, attracted well over 1,000 students. Both Lawton and Salatin have published books, taught courses, and are highly sought-after speakers at conferences all over the world. They’ve planted themselves firmly into the North American food movement, and as some would argue, dominated the movement’s conversation.
“Spermaculture is a term coined by women and queer folks to name the ways that permaculture projects are often dominated by white, middle-class men who [can be] outspoken and overbearing,” says Nick Montgomery, a PhD student in the cultural studies program at Queen’s University.
Montgomery’s research explores the ways that people are cultivating alternatives to the dominant order of hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism, with a focus on permaculture and local food movements.
“I think many of the gendered divisions in food movements today reflect broader systems of oppression,” says Montgomery.
“White, cis-gendered, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied men are some of the most visible and vocal leaders in the food movement because we’re socialized to be competitive, individualistic, assertive, and authoritative. We tend to talk first, loudest, and longest, and we’re often rewarded and encouraged when we do.”
Some women who are working in alternative food systems have chosen to temporarily step away from the permaculture movement in North America. Angela Moran was one of the first urban farmers in Victoria, B.C., and has over 10 years’ experience applying permaculture principles to growing food in the city. She admits that most of the “big players” in permaculture are men, and many have never come to see her urban farm.
“I’ve not been invited much to teach in areas that are being headed up by men,” Moran says.
“Maybe it’s just that I’m busy, maybe they think, ‘she’s got a kid, she’s got a farm’ – I don’t know what it is, but it’s made me understand the permaculture movement from a different perspective and what it’s really doing.”
Berezan describes permaculture as a “young movement” that lacks self-awareness and criticism in many ways. While Bill Mollison founded and introduced permaculture as a scientific movement, today’s generation of permaculturists are continually pushing for the inclusion of social dynamics, including gender dynamics, in discussions.
“If it’s care of the earth, care of people, and sharing the surplus, human dynamics have to be a part of that and the social analysis needs to be a part of that,” says Berezan.
In eastern Ontario, Ford credits the recent work of Karryn Olson-Ramanujan, a permaculture teacher, designer, and co-founder of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute. Olson-Ramanujan published an article in the Permaculture Activist magazine in August 2013 called “A ‘Pattern Language’ for Women in Permaculture.” The article explores the patterns of issues that women face in permaculture communities and offers practical solutions for making permaculture more accessible to women.
“Karryn’s article focuses a lot [on] alliances, and things men can do to try and make more space for women in their courses and communities,” says Ford.
“The article proposes simple ways to make the classroom more welcoming – to prep the teachers and the class to be aware of their communication, especially the teachers. If there’s a woman in the group, to not interrupt her; to give her the floor.”
“In a large class, being able to see the front of the room is important,” Ford explains. “If people are standing, men tend to be taller, and just having the courtesy and awareness to share the space makes a difference.”
Moran agrees that challenging gender roles and striving for sensitivity in communication plays a key role in making permaculture more accessible to women and diverse groups.
She acknowledges the efforts of male permaculture instructors in her community who are gradually becoming more aware of power and privilege, and building alliances with women and other diverse groups for increased social inclusion in the movement.
“Permaculture has all of the solutions,” Moran stresses. “We just have to make sure that it gets into all the right minds of the sons and the daughters of the colonialists who created our current food system.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Geoff Lawton is based in the U.K. not Australia.
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It would have been interesting to have considered the work of Starhawk in this article. In North America, I would consider her one of the best-known permaculture teachers. She combines permaculture with activist principles in her Earth Activist trainings. She has also worked to bring permaculture to diverse, poorer communities in the Bay area and creates lots of work-study opportunities in her courses to make them accessible to all. She regularly teaches both in the USA and Canada.
From Mark Hathaway in Canada on Apr 27th, 2015 at 1:30pm
Great article. However I have found all the permaculture men in my PDC and assorted networks in Australia and Tasmania to be wonderful and not at all superior in their manner.
The issue of unpaid and unrecognised projects is relevant however.
One correction – Geoff Lawton is based in NSW, Australia and has been there for many years. He runs the Permaculture Research Institute since Billl’s retirement. Some 18 years now.
From Cass in Australia on Apr 28th, 2015 at 12:49am
we really have to get this one right for the sake of the planet and the quality of our relationships. The templates that we develop must be earth cantered and genuinely inclusive. As an older person I see that my children and grandchildren, though living in a society that is more free, though they have progressive parents, they are socialised from a very young age by the majority culture in many insideous ways. One tendency is for girls to avoid science and mathematics, especially hard science. The relate more to the inside house culture, losing interest in garden projects quite quickly. Both girls and boys shy away from the physical effort, the girls perhaps more than the boys, though this is not being contested. This is wider and deeper than the progressive land based movements. This kind of discussion is crucial, however, within the movement. If this is happening, there must be a lot of hidden insecurity. Conscious strategies can alleviate. Everyone must have a place and an opportunity to lead.
From David mackinnon in angaston, South Australia on Apr 28th, 2015 at 2:38am
Thank you for this article……. it so happens that I also feel this imbalance within Permaculture…. I’m looking to expand on the current PDC information to include ‘The Yin Perspective’, which will take Permaculture to the next level….. I have emailed Bill Molison to discuss but to date no response from him!……. interesting!!
From Kate Bee in Australia on Apr 28th, 2015 at 2:56am
Thank you for this article! I’m a Permaculture teacher and farmer and am offering a women’s only PDC this summer based on my own doctoral research into women farmers in the Midwest of the U.S…. and have been surprised by the amount of pushback I am getting in some circles. Somehow a women’s only course seems threatening to some folks in the Permaculture movement, which to me is a great indicator that there is still a lot of work to be done! You can check out my research with women farmers in the U.S. at [url=http://www.womenfarmstories.com]http://www.womenfarmstories.com[/url].
From Clare Hintz in Herbster WI on Apr 28th, 2015 at 6:09pm
Kate Bee I would suggest you email Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute
here are the contact details. Bill has been taking it easy for a while. He handed the responsibility to Geoff about 18 years ago.
From Cass in Tasmania Austrlia on Apr 28th, 2015 at 11:16pm
I would characterize this is as the typical complaining of non doers about doers. There are many great women in permaculture doing many great things and I want to see as many of them doing it and hear from as many of them as possible.
But what are those of doing going things and getting shit done supposed to do if we happen to be white males, stop and wait for someone else to do or teach?
This is what you call an imaginary and delusional barrier. There is nothing preventing any woman, person of color, etc. from doing whatever they want in Permaculture, period.
There are no jobs the way we think of them in permaculture, you don’t get a PDC and then go try to get IBM to hire you, so EOE government bullshit doesn’t apply here. You do or you don’t do, you speak up or you don’t speak up.
Simply put if you are a woman and you want to see more women do great things in permaculture, get doing. If you are a woman and want to see more women teaching/writing/speaking in permaculture, get doing it.
Let me clue you in on something to if you are woman and parroting the white male privilege crap. If white men are privileged, guess what, so are all the white women! Think about that.
I talk to 120,000 people a day via my podcast. I have had plenty of women on to discuss their efforts both in permaculture and in many other pursuits. On my guest survey form there is no box to tick for sex, sexual preference, skin color or which earth goddess you build mud statues to, as I don’t give a damn about any such things.
I care if you know your shit, if you are doing good shit and if you give a shit enough to want to share what you are doing.
Frankly I have no patience for this infighting bullshit. What the author should do is stop breathing purple and “go plant some shit” in the words of Ron Finley.
From Jack Spirko in azle, texas on Apr 29th, 2015 at 6:57am
It’s a thought-provoking article. It seems to me it is the responsibility of the media, such as the writer of this article, the organisers of conferences and so on, to represent the diversity of people involved in permaculture. A recent list on social media of female teachers produced a long selection of names from all over the world.
It is up to individuals and groups to be self-motivated and not place undue faith in ‘superstar’ leaders. Bill and David developed the kernel of an idea and put it into a form (the two-week course) where it can be replicated quickly while still staying intact. Once the idea is transfered to a new habitat, it needs local application to flesh it out. Many of the people involved in spreading permaculture are anarchists and would laugh at the idea of idolising the people back in Australia who were involved in the early days. Don’t fall for this ‘guru’ rubbish.
Permaculture has some useful contributions to make on diversity and inclusion. From the outset, it spread to over 100 countries around the world. Rosemary Morrow was telling me about Em Ponna in Cambodia, teaching permaculture techniques to women farmers. It is something which can make a real difference in the lives of subsistence farmers and other people with fragile resources. It is strongly concerned with food, water, energy, housing, a stable climate: the basic staples of life. If permaculture does what it is intended to and develops more sustainable ways of living on the planet, then African women farmers should be among the beneficiaries.
On issues of race, identity, gender and so on, I was in Uganda once and saw Nelson Mandela, who had come against doctors orders to speak to the people there. He told us that we all have to shine, and he didn’t mention race or sex or sexuality. We all have to shine.
From Ed Sears in UK on Apr 29th, 2015 at 1:01pm
Thanks for the helpful information. I will contact Geoff Lawton and see where it leads to.
Interesting dialogue. I’m fascinated to hear how you know so much how a woman thinks – given you are a man. It’s attitudes like this that indicate to me how much imbalance exists between the yin/yang, men/women even in the world of Permaculture. From my take of the PDC world (I have completed a PDC and I try to live as much as I can in the world of Permaculture Design), the yin is a threat to the yang elements. The Yin has so much to offer the Yang and the Yang has so much to offer the Yin.
From K8 Bee in Australia on Apr 29th, 2015 at 9:40pm
No one is stopping anyone from producing food using Permaculture based on gender, race, or any other type of identity.
From Alex on Apr 30th, 2015 at 5:04pm
I initially thought this was a serious conversation until I realized that whoever wrote it didn’t know the first thing about permaculture. Geoff Lawton is not based in the U.K. but in Australia and would stand out as the possible worst choice of a person who is representative of the mainstream members of permaculture. As far as I know Joel Salatin is not in permaculture nor has he claimed to be a student of permaculture.
Without a true understanding of the definition of permaculture and who is who how can one take the rest of your article seriously??
From Scott Pittman in USA on Apr 30th, 2015 at 8:30pm
Thanks to Trina Moyles for writing this thought-provoking piece. I did not realise that my voice would be so central to this article; what I shared comes from my own experience and I cannot speak for most women in the permaculture community. On my part, I am so grateful to have such supportive colleagues and teachers; they helped me see myself intrinsically as a change-maker and a leader (which we all have in us), before thinking of myself as a woman or a person of colour.
Sebastien Bacharach and Douglas Barnes have been tremendously supportive colleagues. Katherine Steele and Christopher Shein were such encouraging and inspiring teachers. In my current community, I am grateful to Lisa Fernandes, Karryn Olson-Ramanujan, Alice Umo Lo and MANY others through the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast, especially those who make possible the Women in Permaculture gatherings at Omega Institute. In my direct lineage, I am grateful to Brock Dolman, Starhawk and Penny Livingston-Stark. I want to acknowledge Jude Hobbs, Robin Clayfield, Robina McCurdy and Robin Francis, a few of the women permaculture elders I’ve met. Add to this mix, folks such as Pandora Thomas, Koreen Brennan and Monica Ibacache, and it is not so hard for me to believe that we are co-creating a world that supports humanity and all of life. Thanks to all of you and SO MANY others (I won’t name more people in the interest of brevity) for your deep care and our collaborative efforts in transforming our communities and our world. In Gratitude and Unity.
If you share the “Permaculture or Spermaculture?” article, please consider sharing my comments here as well. Thank you!
From Bonita Ford in Perth, ON, Canada on May 3rd, 2015 at 9:09am
This article seems unnecessarily divisive, rather than inclusive. It appears to toe the feminista line just as much as it accuses men of toeing the patriarchy line.
The real question should be, is anyone keeping these women down and oppressed? Is the heavy hand of the Permaculture “industry” keeping women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen? And what’s all this focus on money and prestige, anyway, from the gender that is most associated with caring and sharing?
If Moyles thinks more women should have more paid jobs in Permaculture, I think she misses the entire point of Permaculture. I have been steadily working to reduce my participation in the economy as part of my Permaculture practice. I would call the women who are practicing Permaculture to be the success stories, rather than the men who are out making a buck at it!
Where exactly are our values? By decrying the power, prestige, and payments that men supposedly receive, are you not in fact embracing the very structure you decry? Why not instead write an article about the need for more men to take on “earth mother” roles of child-rearing, volunteering, and subsistence farming?
There may be two genders, but try to remember that we’re all in this together. No one is keeping any woman from going out and getting rich and famous from Permaculture. If you see that as your passion, go out and do it, rather than making up some divide that doesn’t exist, but for the different passions and skills of individuals.
From Jan Steinman in Canada on May 5th, 2015 at 10:30am
Thank you for writing this as a white male!! When I first was introduced to this was within a permaculture school originally setup by Tim Winton.
While I appreciated the experience, I was also extremely confused on the male/female references to land which seemed to counter the entire point of the practice. I think the pinnacle point was in the leader of the school being pointed out for abusive, controlling, and questionable behaviour. Each time, during group meetings, he would dismiss or turn the tables to become the victim (of his own life).
Such lack of acknowledgement of his own privilege as a white heterosexual male really frustrated me!! And I have seen other folks within the permaculture movements (male) dominating the same voices.
So I guess if I need training I intend to seek out females running workshops and pain them fairly and truly. Furthermore, it seems time for male permaculturalists to step down to give room to others to step up.
From ShaneOnABike in Canada on May 5th, 2015 at 12:49pm
I loved your comments and I found them interesting from a males take on things.
I don’t know where you live in the world, however, if you find your way to Australia you would be made most welcome at any Permie event I was associated with!
From Kate Bee in Australia on May 6th, 2015 at 2:21am
wow Scott Pittman April 30 on what facts do you base your statement that Geoff Lawton is not representative of mainstream Permaculture? He teaches, he travels widely to remote and difficult places. He embodies permaculture principles. He uses online teaching to reach thousands of people. The fees from this fund his projects in impoverished communities. His videos are free.
Bill Mollison endorses him.
Actually he is an amazing energetic permaculture pioneer. Earth care, people care, fair share.
From Cass in Tasmania, Australia on May 6th, 2015 at 6:09pm
I agree that women have a very small place in permaculture. To be a young woman PDC teacher, especially one who works from her heart as well as her mind, is difficult. I’ve faced many occasions where women are not treated as equals in permaculture, and it is my stubbornness and knowledge that teaching permaculture is my life-purpose that has got me through.
At the recent permaculture convergence in Tasmania children were not allowed – with no crèche like other convergences – which basically means that mothers are not allowed unless they have support from a partner to look after the kids. I was horrified at this.
Over the years I have found convergences to be so “male teacher focused” that I have called a women’s circle just so we could have an opportunity to speak an be heard.
Thanks for this piece, I feel inspired to do more!
From Tamara Griffiths in Upwey on May 10th, 2015 at 6:44pm
We need to take a step back a moment and stop continuing the assumption that greatness is always published or documented on the web. I am a woman and I have had one of the biggest success and a good incomes teaching permaculture, now in 64 countries. Just because I don’t brag about my achievements doesn’t mean they are not there.
Rosemary Morrow, one of my PDC teachers, is a world leader, teaching in Vietnam. Her work ripples throughout the third world.
Jude Fanton, another one of my PDC teachers, works globally in saving seed.
Lets not measure her success is dollars but in effectiveness and lets not discount her work simply because it is not reported on the one-third-world-wide-web. I happy to talk about only because I want other women to see that we are on the front – we are making things happen. If you are searching for people who are beating their chests and promoting what they do – yes you will find the great white silver-backs of the movement there. Focus on talking the walk and let the men wonder how we do it!
From April Sampson-Kelly in Australia on May 13th, 2015 at 2:41am