Permaculture Voices – A Newcomer’s Perspective

Dinner with a crew at the conference. Photo credit Souki Mehdaoui.

Dinner with a crew at the conference. Photo credit Souki Mehdaoui.

In the middle of March, I spent four days immersed in an eye-opening conference near San Diego. This was the inaugural Permaculture Voices (PV1), a gathering of 600 teachers, leaders and business people passionately curious about making an impact through permaculture, and it totally blew away my preconceived notions about what permaculture is all about. Prior to this, I only had a loose understanding of the players involved and the scope of their work, and the conference completely changed my viewpoint.

Seeing all these people together and listening to their informative presentations leads me to believe permaculture is transcending its fringy past and breaking through to have a shot at gaining status alongside other standards such as LEED and Fairtrade. Schools are now offering permaculture design as part of their curricula, including Merritt College in California, the University of North Carolina, and Evergreen in Washington. And celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, Robert Downey Jr. and James Cameron (director of “Titanic” and “Avatar”) are hiring permaculture designers to work on their properties. As soon as Kanye and Beyonce start tweeting about it, game time!

What the heck is permaculture anyway? Toby Hemenway, a well-known permaculturist author and teacher, has a great article where he defines it as “an instruction manual for solving the challenges laid out by the new paradigm of meeting human needs while enhancing ecosystem health.” Based on that, plus my understanding of the 20+ talks I attended in the four-day conference, my layman’s interpretation is “a toolkit for designing efficient, sustainable systems in a holistic way.” Take all the disciplines available from science, agriculture, health and wellness, engineering and beyond and select the right tool at the precise time to create a harmonious system that benefits the world. It is hard to pin down. Perhaps it should just be three words: Smart. Holistic. Design.

Toby Hemenway and Larry Santoyo enjoying a laugh over dinner. Photo credit Souki Mehdaoui.

Toby Hemenway and Larry Santoyo enjoying a laugh over dinner. Photo credit Souki Mehdaoui.

Permaculture Voices shifted my perspective because the hundreds of people at the conference were the doers and shakers. People like Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms and his four-generation operation with revenues in the millions that supports multiple families while feeding thousands of customers. He also pushes the boundaries of farming while speaking eloquently and writing books about his experiences. Or Willie Smits, a scientist who is directing a 500,000 acre project in Indonesia to rehabilitate Orangutan habitat. The project is designed as a waste-free, closed-loop system supporting the local economy (previously crushed by the logging collapse) while generating fuel and electricity and a saleable resource, palm sugar. Oh, and it offers a 43% rate of return for investors! THAT is holistic, smart design that legitimizes a movement.

The accomplished and well-known keynote speakers included Michael Pollan, Geoff Lawton and Allan Savory and were incisive and inspiring. That said, two of my favorite talks at the conference were by guys in their early 30’s. Curtis Stone, owner of The Urban Farmer, built a successful urban micro-greens business on less than an acre of land that he astutely chooses not to own. This gives him the flexibility to test new markets and expand and contract nimbly. Not just that, he is teaching others how to do the same, which allows entrepreneurs to earn money and deliver organic, fresh and healthy produce straight from the farm to a local restaurant just a few blocks away. Curtis has a goal to educate hundreds of farmers in urban areas to do the same, traveling the world and creating productive farms in each city he visits.

My other favorite was Javan Bernakevitch. Besides being an engaging speaker, Javan talked about doing. His goal is to help others find success through concrete steps, not just theory. “Here is how you can build a successful permaculture business.” To me, Curtis and Javan are the new face of permaculture. They have the panache and business minds, plus the drive, to take things to the next level and push permaculture from the edge past the tipping point and into the mainstream while sticking to what matters. And that’s just a sampling – there were many others giving inspiring talks and attendees working to create positive change. People like Luke Callahan and, an Etsy-type platform for farmers to sell their seeds through an online marketplace.

One of the many after-parties where the ideas just kept flowing.

One of the many after-parties where the ideas just kept flowing. Apologize for the quality – iPhone in a dark room, ya know.

We in “sustainability” are all angling at the same thing – preserving the world we live in while still embracing progress, yet each business is siloed in this world, whether it’s farming, green building, selling outdoor gear, or building electric cars. Permaculture principles such as “observe” and “catch and store energy and materials” incorporate aspects that contribute to a holistic system, and I’ve seen similar mindsets via past work that incorporated green building guidelines such as the aforementioned LEED or the Living Building Challenge. With B Corporations on the rise, profit and practices beneficial to eco-systems need not be mutually exclusive. Demonizing profit isn’t going to get us anywhere and never has. The people with the money simply laugh and bulldoze through it.

My biggest takeaway from Permaculture Voices is that there is a new guard primed to hit the scrimmage line just as the people with money and influence are willing to pay for it. This new group of leaders is more mainstream, yet still driven to care deeply for the world and want to make a solid living while creating change. They have a message of hope to galvanize action. To me, this is a shift that inches things closer to the tipping point. Consumers these days are dialed into these types of business. Thanks to sites like, it is no longer a one-way street where businesses dictate how we consume and we have no voice or choice. Personal wellness and preserving our eco-systems aren’t a trend!

Permaculture dials into this sentiment by touching all we hold precious. It has the power to preserve and regenerate our planet while growing GDP at the same time. Beyond farmers, it needs more CPAs and engineers, lawyers and dentists, to shore up the foundation and expand the potential impact of all the talented people involved. After my experience at the first Permaculture Voices, I’m not only convinced it is a great toolkit for change, but am hoping to get involved to help with some of the amazing projects around the globe to contribute my skill set.