The State of American Permaculture: A Millennial’s Perspective

by Benjamin Weiss

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Part 1 of a series on social & economic inequality in permaculture. Part 2 is entitled: The Need for Landless Permaculture. Part 3 is entitled: Environmental Activism in Disempowered Communities: A Pattern Language for the Privileged.

My Attempts to Make a Living in Permaculture…

I am 31 years old. During the past ten years I have studied permaculture and many other fields and disciplines with full dedication. I have attended classes, workshops, seminars, and conferences, engaged in apprenticeships and internships. I am a certified permaculture teacher and designer. I have taught 14 Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs). Several of them I taught myself. All of them I organized. I have developed curricula for dozens of classes and workshops ranging from philosophical and spiritual topics to community-building to activist trainings to land management. I have been an organizer
and activist in campaigns ranging from anti-war to prisoner’s rights to civil rights to environmental defense. I am the co-originator of the Rewilding Design System, an entirely new branch of permaculture science and philosophy with a curriculum, training program, and fully articulated principles, ethics, and design tools. I have designed, implemented, and managed three organic farms, including an urban farm dedicated to youth empowerment. I have foraged professionally. I have studied herbalism and forestry. I have run three different iterations of design and install businesses. I have been a member of non-profit boards. I have trained intensively as an activist, a teacher, a group facilitator, an organizer, and an entrepreneur. I have organized regional convergences, spoken to diverse audiences, managed an intensive online presence. I have spoken on podcasts, written articles in periodicals and blogs, run a crowd-funding campaign to fund a book on permaculture and rewilding, networked with religious communities, Native American groups, poor urban neighborhoods, middle America, supported the work of friends and colleagues, attended large conferences and convergences, and maintained valuable dialogues with leading permaculturists. The volume of correspondences I receive via email, Facebook, and telephone is overwhelming and impossible to keep up with…

And yet, I have made an average of about $10,000 per year over the past decade. Some years, I’ve barely had enough to eat. I didn’t have health insurance  until this year. I’ve lived off of odd jobs, welfare, and the support of family and friends. To this day, I work tirelessly, now more busily than ever. I run my own business, and have built all of the infrastructure that such a business requires. Anticipating that more networking, greater exposure, growing public interest in permaculture, and the trending of the economy toward re-localization all would help me attain right livelihood, I have shed the odd jobs and wholly dedicated myself toward my professional goals. But it’s not working.

The Reality of the Situation…

My classes and educational programming, crafted to serve all ages, is more popular than ever. But attendance is not increasing. I spent the past autumn and winter months building a year-long schedule of classes, and doing all of the organizing and administrative work required to launch them. I rolled them out on social media, on my website, with flyers, and word of mouth. The communications in response began pouring in. But the vast majority of people interested in these classes cannot afford them, despite the fact that I offer some of the cheapest permaculture programs in the country. Support in the way of encouraging words, requests for scholarships and work trades, and thousands of “Likes” on endless Facebook pages have been overwhelming. Financial support comes mostly from a small, dedicated group of mentors and former students, and comes nowhere close to meeting my own financial needs, to sustaining the operations of my business, or to building jobs for peers and students ready to step into them.

Through waves of frustration and hope, I have reiterated the meme that says: “Anyone can raise a thousand dollars to attend a course if they really want it badly enough.” But I see now that this is the talk of the middle class, a class in which I was raised, but in which I no longer reside. Nor do I buy into the myths and culture of this class any longer. The more I have built connections with communities of color in downtrodden metropolitan neighborhoods, the more obvious it has become that those who most deserve access to the education I can offer, simply do not have the resources to support my efforts. A young black man who lives in a ghetto and wants to take my class cannot raise a thousand dollars through a crowd-funding platform if everyone he knows is destitute. And his other recourse to answering the nonsensical notion of access to funding “if he really wants it badly enough” is crime. I am blessed enough to have indirect access to the monumental and unprecedented treasure trove of resources accumulated by the Baby Boomers through older members of my family whom have, indeed, been generous with me throughout my pursuit of professional permaculture. But such access is not available to many of the racially diverse communities whom permaculturists have so vocally wished to connect with and help. And that American Dream fairy tale that says “If I work hard enough I’ll make it” has never been true for me during my adult life, despite my indirect access to the last generation’s wealth, nor has it been true for most of my peers.

Despite decades of predictions by the demagogues of the environmental movement, the access to land, to corporate contracts, to a sudden surge of resources as the masses realize the necessity of permaculture in an age of looming catastrophe has not occurred. My design business is not consulting with governments or redesigning sprawling suburban lawns into wildlife habitat or food production systems. Funding for land management experiments or community-building programs has not been made available.

Where To Go From Here…

Despite many years of agreeing to the contrary, I now firmly believe that permaculture education must be made nominally free, at least in terms of the cost in money to attend such classes. The implications of this that I see are as follows:

  • The non-profit sector, rather than students, must be the source of funding for the budgetary requirements of educational programs.
  • A multi-faceted infrastructure to identify and select students who deserve this education and will value it inherently must be crafted to ensure that the lack of tuition does not cheapen the true worth of the education.
  • Other ways for students to “Pay it back” or “Pay it forward” must be cultivated, such as work trades and volunteerism.
  • To prevent the all-too-common lackluster investment into work trades and volunteerism, these opportunities must also represent further training that builds on the curricula of the free classes.
  • To provide such professional training to advancing students, which serves as both repayment for initial educational opportunities as well as labor support for real-world projects, localized industries and economies built on permaculture must be flourishing.
  • In order for permaculture-based industries and economies to flourish, permaculturists must be able to access all the resources necessary to attain to a professional level.
  • Ultimately, it is not a diploma or a degree or years of training that leads to professionalism, but access to funding via customers; funding required to build real-world businesses and pay for advancing training and infrastructure.
  • And so permaculture needs a market, and financial support from patrons and benefactors, and without it, we go nowhere.Business Structure Diagram

Not Just a Ride on the Wave…

Because the vast majority of financial wealth is still controlled by the Baby Boomer generation, and because the pioneers of permaculture are of that generation, I call on them to recognize that access to funding is now the primary impediment to the growth and influence of the permaculture movement, and to utilize their collective voice to spur their generation to divert financial capital to the efforts of Millennial permaculturists.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once described the failures of  the countercultural revolution of the 1960’s with incredible insight and sincerity:

“That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

No movement thrives on good ideas alone. Without a massive influx of funding, soon, young permaculturists like myself and many of my peers will have to put our projects aside and the movement will stagnate. The wave will break, and what has already been done may very well represent the high water mark of permaculture as well as the environmental movement. For me, that would represent a decade of wasted effort, and the visions of what could be dashed. For the founding generation of permaculturists, that would represent a gross failure to see 10338325_10102352819098543_5541339237638422603_ntheir own efforts and vision through to the end of their tenure. And for the world, that would represent a missed chance at a brighter day.


Benjamin Weiss

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