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Permaculture and Community Part 2: Using the Moral Imagination in Permaculture – The Permaculture Research Institute

Permaculture and Community Part 2: Using the Moral Imagination in Permaculture

December 14, 2017by & filed under General

In part 1 of this article (1) I explored how permaculture is very much linked to practices of peacebuilding and in particular to the use of our “moral imagination” (2). As a holistic lens through which to view the world, which encourages curiosity and creativity and includes the possibility of stepping outside of societal or cultural norms, permaculture has many similarities to the moral imagination as described by John Paul Lederach (2). Theoretically, then, permaculture can be a tool not only for landscape design but also for helping to re-imagine or rebuild communities which for some reason have ceased to function or are not functioning in a healthy way, as Lederach does in his line of work. But how can we apply this theory practically? This article will look at how using these theories can have a lasting practical impact, beginning on an individual level and rippling outwards to communities, societies and the world.

Building peace inside ourselves

Permaculture and peacebuilding are both on some level about finding ways in which a community or system is functioning ineffectively and changing that, hopefully for the better. It can be deceptively easy to go about this change-creation from an outside-in approach; i.e. to have an idea and then to try to apply that thing to the people, creatures and other things around you. This seems to be the approach of many governmental institutions. The idea that we can only create change outside ourselves once we have created change within is one so often repeated it could almost be called a cliché. Since much of our cultural training appears to lead away from this idea, though, I am going to repeat it again here (briefly) anyway.

Mohandas Gandhi published a paper in 1913 in which he said

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” (3)

This simple idea has been explored by practitioners of all fields, for many decades or more likely centuries, though it seems of particular importance in today’s world of seemingly instant technology and desires for quick-fix solutions coming from outside. A lot of the time it is easy to see how Gandhi’s words are true on an intellectual level. It is quite another thing to apply the idea that until you change yourself you cannot change anything. From this perspective, any improvements you wish to make in the outside world have to begin in your own mind and body.

Healing inside and out

As mentioned in part 1 of this article, ‘violence’ is not necessarily the sole property of war-torn countries and states but may well be present in all of our daily lives. In the same way, many psychologists have theorized that ‘wounding’ of a psychological nature is not a rare occurrence that happens only to those doomed to mental institutions, but is, in fact, something which is unavoidable, particularly in a culture in which daily un-empathetic communication is to a large extent encouraged (see for example 4). Firman and Gila (4) call this “primal wounding”; damage to our psyches which occurs when we are not accepted as an authentic and holistic personality, and which can create psychological scarring. They are not the only ones to postulate that a lot of the environmental destruction we can see occurring in the world is made possible by the fact that we have received similarly destructive wounding in our psyches by being denied what they call an “empathic holding environment” (4), (5). Little wonder then, that we sometimes engage in

” massive abuses of the natural environment that threaten the holding environment that every one of us shares—the planet Earth itself” (4)

The key to these primal wounds, however, is that they can be healed. There are numerous ways to do this. Firman and Gila recommend reconnecting to the previously wounded parts of your psyche, through gentle and empathic therapy; David Abram recommends reconnecting to the wordless language of the “animate landscape”, through enlivening and enrichment of our senses (5). The key seems to be that we know in theory what needs to be done but until we do it ourselves on a personal level we cannot hope to create real and lasting change. As Bill Mollison put it,
“Once you’ve said to yourself, “But I’m not using my physics in my house,” or “I’m not using my ecology in my garden, I’ve never applied it to what I do,” it’s like something physical moves inside your brain. Suddenly you say, “If I did apply what I know to how I live, that would be miraculous!” “ (6)

Art and soul

As I touched upon in part 1 (1), Lederach repeatedly refers to peace-building as a creative endeavor and appeals to the artist inside all of us (2). He correlates peace, art and healing as being of the same kind of thing. This seems particularly important to bring into the world of permaculture. Permaculture is scientific in that it is based on using your senses and what is directly observable, in the same way, that peace-building is scientific in that it looks at patterns of cycles of violence and tries to create formulas for transcending these. However, permaculture is also about observing and working with energies, some of which may be unpredictable or even invisible, such as those of social interaction. Without a capacity for creatively working with these energies, we may be in danger of losing the whole point of whatever we are designing in the first place.

“The challenge of the artful connection”, says Lederach,

” is how to respect what we create, nurture love for what we do, and bring beauty to what we build, even in the simplest tasks. We have come to see our work for social change and peacebuilding too much in the line of an intellectual journey… Politics, as usual, has not shown itself particularly capable of generating authentic change for the good of the human community. We have to recognize that constructive social change, like art, comes in fits and starts. The greatest movements forward, when you look really closely, often germinated from something that collapsed, fell to the ground and then sprouted something that moved beyond what was then known” (2)

Art and progress

To sum up this part of the series, then, we can begin to draw some lines between the seemingly diverse practices of permaculture, art, healing, and peace. Key to these connections is the centre of any action that you take; your own personal psyche and the care you take of it. Hopefully, this article has gone some way towards giving hints for practical exploration of these themes; more will follow in part 3.

“To believe in healing is to believe in the creative act” (2); what creative acts can you bring into your life to help yourself to heal?


1.Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Permaculture and Community Part 1: Permaculture as a Tool for Peace’. Permaculture News, 2/11/17. – retrieved 4/12/17

2.Lederach, J.P, 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

3.Gandhi, M, 1964. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XII, April 1913 to December 1914, Chapter: General Knowledge About Health XXXII: Accidents Snake-Bite, (From Gujarati, Indian Opinion, 9-8-1913) The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi at

4.Firman, J; Gila, A, 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.

5.Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Language and Perception in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.

1.Atkisson, A; Mollison, B, 1991. ‘Permaculture: Design for Living’. Context: Making it Happen IC#28. – retrieved 4/12/17



On – 14 Dec, 2017 By Charlotte Ashwanden

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