Disobey: Applying the 12 Principles of Permaculture to Activism

by Michelle Johnsen

We don’t have to ACCEPT.

Instead we can RESIST






-Natasha Alvarez, The Year Of Black Clothing

For as long as figures of authority have existed, there has been dissent. As long as injustices have occurred, there have been rallies, marches, and demonstrations against them. As far back as governments, rules, and laws have been in effect, there have been activists and protesters disobeying them in the name of what is fair and right. Never in all of history has standing up against oppression been popular or easy, but activists have carved a niche that will never close- a space for those of us who live outside of social constraints, the ever-sprawling grid, and civilization’s behavioral expectations. David Holmgren’s 12 Principles of Permaculture have innumerable applications, and as an activist and environmentalist, I’ve decided to explore how these principles can be applied to activism and grassroots community building.

Observe and Interact is the first principle outlined in Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and it is the first step a person can take toward activism. OPEN YOUR EYES. Observe the tensions that surround controversial issues in your private household, in public where you live, as well as around the world. PAY ATTENTION. Observe your own reactions to these topics as well as the responses of local and federal authorities. Are you offended? Outraged? Complacent? Confused? By answering these questions, you may decipher your level of interest and begin to learn when and how to engage as you seek justice.

The second principle introduced by Holmgren is Catch and Store Energy. This can be applied in more than one instance, but I’ve chosen to hone in on something that has affected many of my friends over the years: activist burnout. Burnout is a very real and potentially harmful ordeal that many organizers and activists have experienced. Unfortunately, it is difficult to navigate through once it has begun. In my opinion, this principle may be the key to avoid burning out. Working for change consumes large amounts of physical as well as mental energy, and these energies are depleted quickly and constantly. Collect these energies when they are abundant. Take advantage of help, funds, etc, given by others when you need a break. Ask for help when you need it. Find your own space and take time there. Making sure that you are caring for yourself, body, brain, and heart together, is crucial. Sharing the work and delegating tasks are essential. This is why there must be a team effort, a group of people you trust and rely upon, and who can rely upon you in return.

Obtain a Yield. Ah, yes. Sometimes being an activist feels futile. Responses to our passionate outcries can be downright disappointing and anticlimactic. It might WP_20141220_003seem like a lot of work for little or no yield. Before attending a rally, before deciding whether or not to join others standing up for their beliefs– make sure there is the possibility of true yield. A niche analysis is a helpful tool for this. Decide for yourself what an acceptable personal yield is, then decide whether your use of your energy, resources, supplies, voice, and influence are going to be worth it. Will you chain yourself to your town square because the right food trucks aren’t downtown at lunch time? Probably not, because it’s a waste of energy for such a small cause. Will you stand with elders and young folks, black, white, brown and everything in between, after learning the military are in your streets, and say “NO! YOU CANNOT, WILL NOT CONTINUE THIS VIOLENCE”? Maybe, if it burns you from the inside with anger and the injustice of it.

Choose your battles. Find what’s important. Make connections. Demonstrate, raise awareness, learn what is really happening, tell the truth as loudly as you can, fight against the system that keeps things quiet and the facts muddled. And demonstrate again. To me, these are all yields because they help me grow as a person and as an activist through experience. Each tiny win must be celebrated as a victory. If you have succeeded in changing the mind of one person, in opening the eyes of a few friends, in spreading awareness through one small neighborhood- celebrate that. Cherish it, because defeat is never-ending; the next fight is always around the corner if you, like me, are in it for the long haul.

Some circles subscribe to the “Step up, step back” approach during workshops, meetings, etc. This philosophy most closely relates to the principle Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback. Outspoken individuals, always with new ideas and a magnetic WP_20150105_011personality, as hard as it will be, need to step back every now and again to allow softer voices a chance to speak. For those more soft spoken, they must step up, open up. And all of us together should be open to the possibility that constructive criticism and feedback from the group is a positive step toward cohesion, instead of a negative experience.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here– we have a history of activism on this planet that can be called on for examples, that sets precedents. Many others before us have done hard work to ensure that we ably continue to petition the government for a redress of grievances. History is a resource that will never run out, and that we can regularly rely on to know how best to approach something, and to consider the past mistakes of others and learn to avoid them. Love and passion are renewable– and they provide momentum, they create relationships, they actually give us something to fight for and a reason to do so.

Produce No Waste. My favorite principle, this is where the spectrum of allies becomes important. There are allies, active and passive. These two groups are critically important to you in a campaign. They will march beside you, or are already interested and wish to get WP_20150220_001involved but do not know how. This is one instance where “preaching to the choir” is helpful to both sides. Then there are several types of neutrals: friendly, oblivious, hostile. Some of these may yet be swayed to support you, or to help convince others beyond where you are able to reach, or not. Lastly are the opponents. They generate doubt, instigate confrontations, and in general will not bend in any way that can benefit your campaign. It would be a waste of valuable time, energy, and resources trying to convince them to join you, and trying to do so may cause major disruption, stress, and depletion of energy. This principle also relates to which campaigns you choose to engage in– make sure it is something important to you personally or to the world, lest you end up wasting time and energy on a trivial matter.

Design From Patterns to Details. We have to be able to step back and assess ourselves as organizers, as well as assess any campaign we align with. Once we are able to observe the patterns happening on both sides, tactics and strategies can be formed with the entire scope of results in mind, and these work in tandem with one another. We can brainstorm to identify goals and understand what we would like to achieve long before we have begun work to actually bring about true change. Once goals are set we can begin working on the tactics to accomplish those, then tasks can be completed by appropriate group members.

Activists are exceedingly aware that we only possess a finite reach. Thinking in systems is valuable here because it allows us to reach out and contact other groups or individuals within our networks who are working for the same causes, or who are willing to, thus leading us to Holmgren’s next principle, Integrate Rather Than Segregate. Why waste valuable time on redundancy in campaigns when you could pool your resources, share the work, and amass a larger assembly of allies?

The next principle, Use Small and Slow Solutions, is a tricky one for activists. On one hand, care must be taken to ensure that ever-increasing shifts of power or oppression happen, but that cannot be pushed too quickly or forcefully. Gradually, the changes we seek may occur if we work hard enough, but many are looking for the alternative: immediate gratification, instant modification. I want that, too! But it’s not always feasible, nor efficient, to rush a true shift. Plus, the opponents won’t be rushing. They’ll drag it out, hope the momentum drops, that protesters scatter after their initial outbursts. Again, we need to be in this for the long haul.

Use and Value Diversity is one of the top principles that can benefit activists. As we are well aware, each individual possesses unique skill sets which can be invaluable to grassroots organizing and campaigning. Working groups are major assets to any social movement– they are the binding which creates cohesion in a larger group, and they are the important groundwork for a functional movement.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal. Obviously activists have this in mind, across the world, but the rest of society has yet to follow. There is value in the most quiet WP_20140818_001word, if it is spoken for the voiceless. Some may think of us as invasives, and maybe we are because we’re not native to the way of thinking and acting that has plagued the world with hatred, violence, hunger, mental illness, and much more. So let us value our own struggles because they give us a chance to speak out.

If only all people in power could Creatively Use and Respond to Change, then possibly we would not be so oppressed. If the people need something, it is theirs to have! When the tides within us and within our homes and countries shift and force us to re-examine all we have come to know, it becomes the activist’s task to muddle through all of it for the next step. When people are staring injustice in the face and are ready to work toward change, we can make a positive impact by stepping in at an appropriate time with helpful guidance and experience. As Zendik Farm proclaims, “Stop bitching, start a revolution!”

Clearly, there are limitless ways to apply the 12 principles of permaculture to an activist lifestyle. These principles can prove enormously helpful if understood and used properly, and, hence, a more efficient revolution can occur. I hope to implement what I have learned about permaculture in activism, as well as take a slower, more in-depth look at the relationship between the two.


  • Alvarez, Natasha. “To the People of Ferguson, MO.” Web log post. The Year of Black Clothing. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.
  • Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles & Pathways beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Vic.: Holmgren Design Services, 2002. Print.
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