An Open Letter to the Permaculture and Transition Movements

Permaculture Circle

Closing circle at the 2018 Building Resilient Communities Convergence in Hopland, California. Photo by the author.

Back in 2008, around the same time I was beginning my work as an intern with Transition Boulder County, the first official Transition Initiative in North America, I completed a 10-day Permaculture Design Certification Course at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colorado. I had recently read The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Permaculture teacher and international Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins, and was eager to learn more. 

Throughout the 12 years since, I have studied and practiced Permaculture and Transition together as a holistic and deeply-fulfilling way of life. Before I came across Permaculture, I had never grown a garden in my life. Now, I live in an intentional community I co-founded with four friends that has a perennial food forest entirely covering our front-yard, a pool-to-pond conversion out back, a community composting hub in one of the side-yards, a clothesline, bike shed, and earthboxes in the other, three egg-laying hens running around wild everywhere, solar hot water, rainwater catchment, a wide variety of culinary and medicinal herbs, and annual vegetables planted in beds and pots pretty much anywhere we can find space.

Likewise, before I came across Transition, I worked as a busser at a tea house and raised money from strangers for climate lobbying efforts on the street. Now, I serve as Assistant Director for Transition US, the national hub for the Transition Towns Movement, developing our training programs and supporting grassroots leaders throughout this country as best I can. I also currently sit on the Board of Directors for Transition Sarasota, the local Transition Initiative I founded in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida back in 2010.

I say all of this not to give myself a pat on the back, but to provide a practical example of how the Permaculture and Transition Movement can come together in one person’s life. From the very beginning, I have seen our two movements as both very similar and complementary to each other. Both are motivated by a vision of a relocalized, regenerative future and hold a common understanding of the complex social, economic, and ecological challenges we are facing at this time in history. Both share the ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share, and many of the same underlying principles.

While the Permaculture Movement has traditionally focused more on developing household-level and farm-scale demonstrations of living abundantly in harmony with nature, Transition has focused most of its efforts on transforming local systems of food, energy, economy, governance, care, and culture. By establishing victory gardens and gleaning projects, repair cafes and local currencies, local investment clubs and time banks, community-owned renewable energy companies and comprehensive plans, the Transition Movement has helped to proliferate Permaculture skills, ideas, and solutions at the community-scale.

As Rob Hopkins wrote in his Transition Handbook:

“One of the principal foundations of the Transition concept is permaculture […] In essence, it is a design system for the creation of sustainable human settlements. When designing the transition that our settlements and communities will inevitably have to undertake, we need a design template with which we can successfully assemble its various components – social, economic, cultural and technical – in the most efficient way possible. Permaculture can be thought of as the design ‘glue’ and the ethical foundations we use to underpin Transition work, to stick together all the elements of a post-peak settlement […] Permaculture principles underpin this approach, which is designed to mainstream its concepts, presenting them as fundamental to any response to energy descent.”

Sustainable Kashi Banner

Online presentation about “Transition to Permaculture: Scaling Up for Community Resilience” I gave a few weeks ago for the Sustainable Kashi Community. Click on the image above to watch the recording on YouTube.

Because I know all of this to be true, I have made my own modest but persistent attempts towards fostering increased collaboration between our two movements over the past decade. I have now delivered more than a dozen presentations for various Permaculture groups and at Permaculture gatherings throughout the U.S. – including the Florida Permaculture Convergence, the Northern California Permaculture Convergence, and the North American Permaculture Convergence – many of which were focused specifically on encouraging greater collaboration. In 2011, I hosted the only Permaculture Design Course that has ever been taught in Sarasota, and in 2018, through my work with Transition US, I had the honor of presenting Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren with our first-ever Transition Ally Award.

Of course, this relationship between Permaculture and Transition is not the only relationship that matters: we also need to learn how to collaborate more effectively with other existing and emerging movements for local food and regenerative agriculture, a new economy and a just transition, climate action and intentional communities. Nevertheless, our relationship is a central one, one that can be mutually-beneficial and potentially help to change the world. 

We could start very simply by talking more about each other and lifting each other up. We should continue encouraging Transitioners to learn more about Permaculture, practice it in their daily lives, and follow its principles in their work as catalysts for community-level change. Likewise, I believe we should be encouraging Permaculturalists to learn more about Transition, reach beyond their farm or homestead to engage their wider community, and collaborate with local Transition Initiatives where they exist. Transition Initiatives can and should help to promote Permaculture workshops and courses, organize tours of Permaculture demonstration sites, and collaborate with local Permaculture groups wherever they exist.

I know this is already happening in many communities throughout the U.S. and around the world, but I also know that we can do more. When I gave an online presentation a few weeks ago to around 40 members of the Sustainable Kashi Community – which is explicitly rooted in Permaculture – no-one on that Zoom call except for my friend Terry Meer had more than a basic understanding of Transition (and few had even heard of Transition before). In my experience, this is not entirely atypical.

Fundamentally, we are kin. Transition can be thought of as a branch on a tree that emerged out of Permaculture, which in turn emerged out of the great indigenous wisdom traditions of the world. Yes, there are many other branches, but we are directly connected. And hopefully, by blossoming together with all of the many other movements for social justice and environmental sustainability around the world, this tree of life will be able to provide shelter enough for all.

Building Resilient Communities LogoLogo for the Northern California Permaculture and Transition Convergence in 2013, when Rob Hopkins made his one and only trip to the U.S. and gave a keynote presentation there. You can see the two leaves used in many Transition logos around the world sprouting up from the fertile soil of the international Permaculture symbol.


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