Thursday, 20 February 2014

Permaculture is [not] a Cult

Rare picture of Bill Mollison presenting certificates at the end of one of the first Permaculture Design Courses
It has been reported anecdotally that some criticism of permaculture focuses on identifying it as a 'cult' movement, with evangelising and arrogant adherents who present permaculture being the only true way. The presentation of permaculture as a cult movement also appears in the critiques of permaculture by Peter Harper and Graham Strouts. This post will examine these claims.

Because a particular sequence of four letters are discernible in the word permaCULTure, it is an easy jibe to  suggest that permaculture is a cult (presumably alongside other cultic movements such as agriCULTure, hortiCULTure, vitiCULTure, monoCULTure etc). Some critics meanwhile, while alive to this wordplay potential,  have also presented a wider case for considering permaculture as a cult. In his article 'Permaculture: The Big Rock Candy Mountain' originally published as 'A Critique of Permaculture; Cleaning out the stables' in Permaculture Magazine (1997), reprinted by the Centre for Alternative Technology in 2003 and more recently republished in The Land, Issue 14, Summer 2013 Harper presents two strands of permaculture - 'Smart' and 'Cult'.

There is much to be unpacked in this list, for the purpose of this article I will concentrate only on the implied claim that permaculture is a cult. Harper indicates clearly here that he does not believe that permaculture as a whole is a cult, but that there is a sub-section of permaculture which is cultish (in presenting the words smart and cult in quotation marks - he also indicates that those words are casual implications rather than tight definitions). One of the characteristics he presents of 'Cult' permaculture is that it is 'More like a religious or political cult', which rather begs the question - but we can perhaps assume that he belives the other characteristics listed already present cult dynamics. These other characteristics will thus form the basis of analysis - are they true of permaculture? are they good evidence of a cult dynamic?

The prophet Holmgren, awkward purveyor of metaphysics,  biodynamics and Mother Earth religion
Graham Strouts's article 'The Cult of Perma' builds on Harper's article with a more strident attack on permaculture. He agrees with Harper that 'there are many permacultures' but is 'personally skeptical that the “smart” permaculture exists at all'. In fact he argues that 'it is inescapable that permaculture as a political movement fits snugly alongside broader conservative environmentalism, with its mixture of elitist traditionalism and eco-fascism, closely associated with New Age spirituality, anti-science and pseudo-science, the quackery of the Organics movement and “alternative” therapies, middle-class health-food obsessions and quasi-religious misanthropic convictions about the purity of Nature and the Fallen-ness of Mankind.' He concludes that 'At the end of the day though, once you strip away the pseudo-science, the Sky-is-Falling doomerism and the feel-good idealism of living in barefoot communes and growing your own food...  all you are left with is the Cult of Perma.' It's difficult to determine the exact characteristics of permaculture which Strouts identifies as cultish. There are several pointers towards what he perceives as a religious sensibility within permaculture. He points to an earlier article in which he finds permaculture co-originator David Holmgren to be 'the awkward purveyor of metaphysics,  biodynamics and Mother Earth religion' (I find this article's analysis of Holmgren's writing in Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability to be an attempt to simplify Holmgren's measured and carefully chosen words into a blunter form something of a straw man argument, but I invite readers to draw their own conclusions). He asserts that permaculture 'attracts a middle-class hippy-peasant chic' which finds 'meeting physical needs... as somehow dirty and base compared with narcissistic aspirations of spiritual purity and “well-being”.' He further finds that 'many of the movement’s leading figures themselves seem influenced by pseudoscience'. Despite the use of the word 'cult' there does not seem to be a strong attempt to identify particular cult qualities, the word seems to be mainly used as a derogatory shorthand. The closest Strouts argument gets to actually proposing permaculture is a cult is by associating it with anthroposophy and an amorphously described 'mother earth religion' - with the implication that these are cults: therefore permaculture is as a cult, which even if we agree that these other organisations are cults, and that some permaculturalists are also engaged with them would seem to be a syllogistic fallacy and guilt by association. A subsequent article by Strouts, 'Feedback on the Cult of Perma', repeats the assertion that permaculture is a cult. After quoting Toby Hemenway suggesting permaculture is not a science but a 'design approach' for finding solutions to most problems, Strouts adds ' “Cult” flashes large in my minds’ eye when I hear such grandiose claims- this is surely a self-fulfilling prophecy in which any “solution” (as if we can even agree on what constitutes such) to any problem can be retrospectively identified as being “permaculture”.'He concludes the article with a reflection that permaculture's ethics of earth care and people care are essentially in irreconcilable opposition, that permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison believes humanity is in overshoot and therefore favours earth over people, that the permaculture community never discusses this, thus 'permaculture will remain a misanthropic cult.'

How might we analyse whether, or to what degree, permaculture exhibits cult dynamics - how can we discern whether the suggestion that permaculture is a cult is true? First we must turn to the meaning and definition of the word 'cult'.

The resonance of the words ‘cult’ and ‘culture’ which affords such self-satisfied wordplay by permaculture detractors is of course not accidental. Both have their origin in the Latin word cultus – ‘to tend, take care of, cultivate’ which originally meant ‘to dwell in or inhabit’.  Thus agriculture means to tend or cultivate land (ager). The broader modern concept of culture originates with the concept of cultura animi or cultivation of the soul. The non-agricultural use of the term culture re-appeared during the Enlightenment referring to the betterment or refinement of individuals, especially through education. During the 18th and 19th century it came to refer more frequently to the common reference points of whole peoples, and discussion of the term was often connected to national aspirations or ideals. Meanwhile religion was cultus deorum, ‘the cultivation of the gods’ and the cultivation necessary to maintain a specific deity was that god's cultus or ‘cult’. The word ‘cult’ entered English from the French in the 1600s meaning worship (which in France it still does); by the nineteenth century it had broadened in meaning to signify ‘devotion to a person or thing’.

The derogatory use of the word ‘cult’ in the modern sense appears to be a product of the late nineteenth century when it gained the connotation of 'a relatively small group of people having (esp. religious) beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister, or as exercising excessive control over members' (OED). A familiar reference point is probably the religious groups of the 1960s/1970s counterCULTure, with the diabolical extreme of outfits led by the likes of Charles Manson and Rev. Jim Jones et al providing iconic examples and a wealth of less deadly 'new religious movement' groups like the Moonies, the Jesus Army, Scientology and the Children of God providing further colour. I think it is safe to assume that it is something of this flavour of cults that is being alluded to - with Strouts also pointing to a longer tradition of nature mysticism. All this is interesting, but leaves open how we establish the existence of cult dynamics.

The International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba, 2013
In their article 'On Using the Term "Cult"' , Herbert L. Rosedale and Michael D. Langone of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) note that 'Much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific "test" incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a "cult." The website of the ICSA also however features the article: 'Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised' by Janja Lalich & Michael D. Langone. In this article Lalich and Langone present the following characteristics as an analytical tool for identifying patterns common to cults.

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). 
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. 
  • The group is preoccupied with making money. 
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

We can use these as a checklist both for mapping characteristics identified by Harper and Strouts, and as an indicator of cultic dimensions within permaculture.

What stands out immediatley when considering the ICSA list is the language of 'leader', 'leadership', 'group' and 'members' which seems to bear little relationship to what I see in permaculture. Harper notes 'heroes' under both 'smart' and 'cult' permaculture, but no leadership role is implied in his use. The individuals listed amongst these 'heroes' are certainly significant figures in the development of permaculture (although the list is probably more pertinent to its initial publication date in 1997 than today) but even those still living are not commonly understood as 'leaders' of permaculture. Some permaculturalists seem overly fond of being 'Mollisonist', but they would be hard pressed to discover any dictates uttered by him in the last decade. Mollison's 'prime directive' of permaculture is 'The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.' which seems quite distant from the idea of a leader dictating how people should 'think, act and feel'

Bill Mollison's Permaculture; A Designer's Manual, Mollison and David Holmgren's Permaculture One, Robert Hart's Forest Gardening and Masonobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution, are in Harper's phrase, 'founding texts' of permaculture from which basic ideas have been drawn. Few of those involved in permaculture will have read all of them though (or indeed any of them), so while they may reflect the belief systems, ideology, and practices of leading figures (not 'leaders'), there is enthusiasm but not not zealous and unquestioning commitment to those beliefs, ideologies and practices. There is nobody in a role to punish or discourage questioning, doubt, and dissent - in fact permaculture principles encourage using and valuing diversity and valuing the marginal - ideas which counter centralising, hierarchical approaches.

While there are groups and membership organisations with permaculture, to engage in permaculture one has neither to join a group nor become a member of an organisation. A such, none of the cultic characteristics in the ICSA list to do with group behaviours and group control appear relevant to permaculture.

The arguments against permaculture by Harper, Strouts and others may contain other critique worthy of exploration, I'll take a look at that separately, but the use of the word 'cult' appears to just be name-calling - at best loose thinking, and at worst a bit of propaganda to tip cognitive bias without supporting evidence. It's loaded language, a snarl word designed to illicit negative reactions in the reader. The identification of the word part ‘cult’ within permaCULTure is largely equivocation – misinterpreting the intended meaning in order to support an argument, yet on a deeper level it does highlight the necessity of active care taking within a movement for sustainability, a vocation which will no doubt supply spiritual satisfiers for many participants - whether that movement is religious or not.



  1. After reading your thoughtful points I reckon there can be no doubt that PermaCULTure is not a cult, however as its not an uncommon remark I wonder whether people saying this are responding to the Permaculture movement's feeling of being a 'club' - exclusive and sometimes cliquey. I had this as feedback from after the 1st London Permaculture Festival, so in the 2nd year we tried to actively design in inclusiveness and openess, it seemed to work.
    There is also the issue of new PDC students coming out of their course reved up, evangelizing yet armed solely with soundbites and secondhand principles - which pisses people off no end. Is there a way that teachers can be warned about the damage this might be doing, without dampening the enthusiasm that new students often feel when opened up to this new way of looking at the world.

  2. Hi James I only just came across your post, you make some excellent points.
    Yes, it is a fair point that I don't define "Cult". I have looked at Lalich and Langone; but some cults are much more cultish than others! So I never meant to characterise PC as a hard-core Cult on anything like the same level as Scientology or Children of God. I see PC as an informal and low-intensity Cult, based ore around a Cult of ideas and sense of belonging to an "in group" who share the same values and beliefs, focussed around the concept of Permaculture and the belief that it has something distinctive and superior to offer in comparism to the "mainstream" beliefs of society, which is it generally positioned against: it is an alternative path.
    Looking at Lalich and Langone's list of criteria, I think the first two-

    do indeed have some relevance for PC practitioners, what you say about leaders notwithstanding.
    In PC, it is more the sense of belonging to an elite which is appealing. The key thing with PC that I believe makes it a Cult is that it is not really definable. Noone knows what it is- it remains mysterious- and yet there is still a strong sense of identity associated with it, which is very important, and allows members to feel a strong sense of belonging and outsiders to be identified with "otherness". Ofcourse, this varies hugely from individual to individual, but it is clearly identifiable in my opinion. To test this, try to explain how we know a system or practice is "permaculture" or not- I dont think we can.
    In addition, as you correctly point out, PC is strongly associated with Anthroposophy, Organics, and other New Age Cults. Anthroposophy is particularly relevant I think as it shares a lot in common in the sense that it is informal and a bit secret- noone really thinks of it as a cult. In addition there is Deep Ecology and even Transition Towns. The role of Leaders varies in significance in these different groups, there may be a lot of leaders who play some informal role; but there is a common idea of Collapse, a reaction against the modern world and science, and the sense of having found Salvation the One True Path. As such PC fits in very clearly with other Cults, and I would go further and suggest that most of the wider environmental movement also shares these characteristics, so perhaps it would be more accurate to see PC as part of a wider Cult/Religion.
    Your point about word play on permaCULTure is a red herring- in my case anyway, just a play on words nothing more. But the point is, horticulture, monoculture etc are all clearly definable- they are a thing- whereas PC is not, so all you are left with is the Cult bit.
    I dont accept that there is a syllogistic fallacy re connections between PC practitioners and other Cults- clearly, it is not like they just play football and then go to a Cult- PC is very closely identified with such Cults and they inform a large part of its identity, meaning and practice. For many people, including I think Holmgren, PC IS Gaia worship, Deep Ecology, or Biodynamics etc- they are not separate areas of life, but have huge overlaps and strongly inform each other.
    I dont accept that I simplify Holmgren either- he does draw strongly on Steiner and earth religion himself, and this informs his permaculture. As I have argued in the post, PC without the Doomerism of Mollison or the New Ageism of Holmgren does not really amount to much- the bits that "work" or are useful are not specific to PC, but just good design/landscape management or gardening etc; the claim that PC provides something distinct and superior is part of how it works as a Cult in my opinion.