How does a permaculture designer talk shop with an environmental economist? 

I am a permaculture designer and now I work for an environmental economist. Both ways of thinking are part of the larger conversation about sustainability so they have a lot in common but I sometimes wonder how permaculture and economics can talk. What they have in common:

  • Systems thinking
  • Working intensely with data and maths
  • Understanding complicated relationships
  • Observing social and environmental change
  • Help people make decisions 

There is contrast too. From my point of view, permaculture design is inherently economical but also social. First let me explain that people tend to think permaculture is some kind of landscape design or gardening method. Landscape design and gardening are just aspects of applied permaculture that people will pay for. Really, it is about energy and the flow of it through an intricate web of relationships. Often dubbed “ecological design” the process of permaculture design invites people to co-create changes in their habitation (think development) with regenerative principles. It has an ethical framework too that allows it to scale up and down.(1) The reason that I think it is so innately economical is that it uses economies of space, time, proximity and scale. In the process, people can also re-identify with place and radically change how they think about the environment and their role in it (i.e. personal agency). I like to think it is a massive multimedia offline role playing game, but I digress.

Both permaculture and environmental economics are a means to help people solve problems and make decisions. If we look at them both with the Cynefin framework,(2) one could say that permaculture lives in the domain of complex adaptive problems; It deals with emergence and living systems. Cause and effect are not discernible at all because the problems are whole cultures expressing themselves. The design process can illuminate patterns, if there is diversity, and people can play and experiment to learn where the leverage points for change are. 

Sticking with the Cynefin frame, environmental economics seems to inhabit the domain of complicated problems; It deals with data in an ordered world. It takes mathematical expertise to tease apart causes and effects, but there are correlations to illuminate. Economists can decipher costs, benefits and value. Policy makers like to pay economics to do summative analysis, so that they can respond to it to solve a problem. My sense is that this creates more distance between living systems and people in real time. 

With permaculture, there is real-time action to meet my sense of urgency. I can at the scale that matches my influence, I can innovate and get feedback right away. Actively healing disturbances in the ecological web of life is out of scope in economics and potentially politically sensitive.(3) That’s okay; there are many niches to fill in the rapid restoration of the planet and economy.

It is said that eco-, the prefix of both economics and ecology (and ecumenical), comes from the root word “oikos”.(4)  While “oikos” is a rich wormhole to explore, “home or household” is a fair starting understanding. Designing for energy efficiency at the scale of home with permaculture requires zone and sector planning, which is another whole conversation, but zones and sectors in permaculture is about planning and development generally. Permaculture has emerged conceptually rooted in the norms of the colonized world where land ownership and stewardship shape policy to the exclusion of more indigenous ways of habitation.(5) In this regard, designs are often centered around human habitat, (which carries in a degree of separation and supremacy). Whereas an indigenous design would participate in what nature is already providing and doing. They might work with emergence to expand the habitat of an existing food source for instance, instead of clearing a forest habitat to their own preferred agricultural production.(6) 

Human habitation and our habituation on the planet is at a critical turning point,(7) where participation in the flow of energy defines our capacity to succeed as inhabitants into the future. I am still learning about the field of environmental economics but it seems to me that it is using economic analysis to observe the impact of climate, pollution and land use changes on real estate, housing, industry and jobs, development and revitalization efforts. Since it can assess the value of policies or projects, in a given place with a triple-bottom-line view, at least when there is data available. 

Economists carry a certain authority that can bring in the dominant culture while permaculture seems countercultural at times. The economist’s expertise has an authority to it; a cachet. So does their client; the org funding their work. That kind of social capital can reinforce systems of patriarchy if not checked. The risk is that patriarchy is sort of how we got into the permacrisis that we are in (ecological, social and economic crisis]. If this seems harsh, consider how taboo it is to talk about the limits of economic growth, still. It is easier to talk about limiting population than to correct hockey-stick wealth distribution.

One thing you need to know about my view of permaculture is that it is cybernetic, not academic knowledge. Meaning that knowing what to do, to live indefinitely or just survive the winter, is a system of communication that is biologically codified and automatically steers our behavior. However, the dominant culture perpetuates a separateness that gets in the way of our innate capacities in this regard, (and our relationships with ancestors of place and heritage that can help us, and indeed do help us survive).  

Where we, the living human organisms, embody connection with natural systems, we participate in the ongoing self-organization of the whole. At various scales (self, family, friends, community and Earth) we live by cooperation and reciprocity.(8) My point is that it is not expertise that got us here, or the means of production. Social and biological interaction and exchanges weave an integral web of relationships that sustain the wellbeing of the home, a community, a place. In permaculture you just need to make use of the energy that comes into the system and be mindful of what is put out as waste. 

In conclusion, permaculture is a design process where people make decisions to co-create abundance and organize around sharing the surplus, and participating in the circular economy as time, money and energy allow. Environmental economics is an assessment process that helps people look at complicated systems for the patterns to inform decisions. Both can shift people’s mindset about the future and that is valuable in face of looming climate and energy disruption.

by Rachel Lyn Rumson

  1.  The three ethics of permaculture are care of the earth, care of people and future care. For more on the theory of permaculture see my post on Medium.
  2. Cynefin (kuh-nev-in) is a Welsh word meaning haunt, habitat acquainted or familiar. David Snowden articulated the Cynefin Framework as a theory of anthro-complexity. It is meant to help people make decisions.
  3. This is beating around the bush a little. Permaculture openly acknowledges peak oil and descent from it as another impactful change that is occurring in real time. That subject is taboo in neoclassical economics as it suggests a limit to growth, so much so that the energetic foundation of capitalist economics is buried in jargon and privilege. 
  4. Oikos refers to three related but distinct concepts: the family, the family’s property, and the house. Distilled from all three could be the notion of a home in common. The term is connected deely to both agrarian and slavery economics, as the smallest unit of taxation in Greek urban centers. (Think “head of household” on your current tax forms.) It also means family; connected to generational lines which we all carry epigenetically into this moment from the past and the future simultaneously. The word is also used today to refer to a social group, or home culture, suggesting that relationships are leverage points as well.
  5. More should be said about the historical impact of colonization on first peoples including the horrors of genocide, ethnic cleansing, enslavement that transpired. The origins of permaculture are cis white men Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, sitting in a British colony on aboriginal land, making protracted observations in nature without land acknowledgment and borrowing experiential wisdom from Japanese farmer Fukoka Manitoba, Author of One Straw Revolution, without attribution.  More still should be said about the ongoing culture of colonization that continues in ever new forms today and contributes to the current ecocidal path we are on.
  6. In her recent TED Talk, “3000-year-old solutions to modern problems” Lyla June discusses several ways that the Dene (
  7. oanna Macy first coined the term the Great Turning in the Work that Reconnects. She is a personal inspiration and a wellspring of how to engage in change work for the planet. (
  8.  In the book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (2010), the author Jeremy Rifkin argues that Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest was more nuanced than paternalistic history has accounted for. He observes, “Darwin came to believe that survival of the fittest is as much about cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity as it is about individual competition and that the most fit are just as likely to enter in cooperative bonds with their fellows.” 

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