This paper critically examines the permaculture approach to community and ethics leveraging feminist and environmental justice analyses. Permaculture originated as a systems design to regenerative agriculture but quickly expanded to encompass human settlements and interactions. The two originators of permaculture – Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – have both offered their visions of new ways of organizing our lives that are in harmony with nature and repair at least some of the damage done by humans. After summarizing the theoretical framework advanced by Mollison and Holmgren, I draw on feminist analyses by Nancy Frazer, Nicola Lacey, and Iris Marion Young to critique their visions, including tendencies to universalize and calls to reinstate gendered spheres. Additionally, I utilize David Schlosberg’s review of environmental and ecological justice, demonstrating that permaculture is largely anthropocentric in its approach to the protection of nature. Overall, I argue that permaculture does not actively address issues of justice – neither in theory nor in the applied movement. There do not seem to be any safeguards that are informed by the theoretical work of feminists and environmental ethicists.
This paper is written with much admiration of and appreciation for the people practicing permaculture. They are doing wonderful things to heal the earth and our communities – growing solutions where theorists mostly offer critiques. Yet, this respect is tied to concerns that too much faith in the process prevents directly addressing issues raised by theorists of justice. The assumption seems to be that if we want the right thing, everything will work out just fine once implemented. Thus, I finish by outlining potential safeguards that would let the movement develop as it counteracts unjust tendencies of the prevailing culture.