On people care, cultural emergence and the mindset of abundance — a conversation with Looby Macnamara

The problems we have with Earth care really stem from the people care side of things

The problems we have with Earth care really stem from the people care side of things

by Gosia Rokicka

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Looby Macnamara. Photo: Dana Wilson

Gosia Rokicka: People care, the second ethic of permaculture, seems to be where you feel the most at home. You are a go-to person as far as social permaculture is concerned, not only in the UK but also internationally. How comes this particular ethic appeals to you so much?

Looby Macnamara: The problems we have with Earth care really stem from the people care side of things: from our own energy levels to the dynamics in our neighbourhoods to international politics. We have solutions for Earth care. We know how to plant a tree but perhaps we don’t agree where to plant it or don’t have the energy to do it. In permaculture we talk about flipping limits — the limits becoming building blocks of our design.

Once we understand that people are the biggest limits to earth care, we need to focus on people care in our designs and in our lives.

This is one of the reasons why I am so interested in the second ethic. And I’ve also noticed that permaculture has an influence on people’s lives that is way beyond gardening. It transforms, empowers and enables creative solutions. People may come into permaculture thinking “I’d like to grow more vegetables” but then move towards making better dietary choices, communicating more clearly with friends and family and even finding a new path in life. Permaculture is about resilience and emotional wellbeing, about being a part of the local community and scaling it up. And about finding your own unique voice.

The one thing that permaculture doesn’t do is give us a blueprint or prescription. Instead, it invites us to find our own pathway. That’s been such a large part of most people’s journey through permaculture. And yet people from the outside still think of permaculture as just a way of gardening. They assume that without access to land they cannot practice permaculture.

So the second part of my motivation for writing People & Permaculture was to open it up to many more people, make it relevant to everyone so they would really see its importance and benefits.

Permaculture is a useful framework for rethinking our own lives and communities.

Indeed, you are most well known as the author of People & Permaculture. Your book has become a recommended reading on many PDCs, including the one I completed in London. Now the second edition is hitting the shops. In what way is it going to be different?

The main body of the text hasn’t changed. We added a new introduction, a new index and a new cover as well. I’m excited about the cover! What I’m hoping for with the second edition is a new framing: People & Permaculture being an essential toolkit for designing personal, collective and planetary wellbeing.

One of the things that emerged strongly from the book over the last seven years was what a functional, intuitive, practical and versatile tool the Design Web has been for people. So we want to attract people who are looking for tools to support their Great Turning. The Design Web is a really grounded tool for making changes that are practical and pragmatic, as well as creative and inspirational. It allows many different dimensions to be considered.

My intention for this second edition is to reach beyond the permaculture bubble and share more widely with people outside of the community.

And in line with the permaculture ethics, I didn’t want to make all the existing thousands of copies of People & Permaculture obsolete. So those who bought the first edition can get a free download with the new introduction and index. And as a way of giving back, they can share the information about the book with a friend who needs some support at the moment; recommend the book to someone who is thinking: “Permaculture sounds great but I don’t have a garden.” This is a book for them.

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The cover of the second edition of “People & Permaculture”. Photo: Looby Macnamara

I would say many experienced permaculturists would benefit from focusing on the people care more as well. I’ve seen many projects that got derailed or didn’t reach their full potential because of conflicts and misunderstandings.

Of course. There are many people already involved in permaculture who still think: “Well, as long as I’m growing my own food I’m doing alright and I don’t need to pay attention to my relationships with people.” But in fact, projects don’t fall apart because apple trees are planted in a wrong place.

Projects fall apart because people can’t decide where to plant the apple tree or the whole process of decision making hasn’t included them and they feel excluded and unheard.

You also write a lot about the Great Turning. It’s explained in your book but could you briefly unpack it for our readers?

The term “the Great Turning” is used by Joanna Macy and it was first coined by David C. Korten. Joanna Macy explains that there are three stories of our time at the moment. One is Business as Usual: this is what media, corporations and politicians present to us. “Everything’s fine, we just need a few more people in the shops.”

There’s also another story: the Great Unravelling. This is what we see all around us: angry petitions coming into our inboxes daily; statistics on crime rates going up; biodiversity going down; warnings that in so-many-years our civilization will collapse; reports showing that what we are doing to our planet, in terms of ecological and social systems, is devastating. The fabric of our civilization and the ecological fabric of our planet are literally unravelling like a loose thread on a jumper — the more you pull it, the more it just keeps going.

The third story, the one about the Great Turning, is much less reported in mainstream media. Good news gets lost, we don’t hear that, for example, the population of mountain gorillas has gone up by 25 per cent since 2002, about billions of trees that have been planted and about countless projects that contribute to this life-sustaining culture. Do you know “The Blessed Unrest”?


It’s a book written by Paul Hawken. According to him, we’ve been carving the largest social movement of our time. It doesn’t have a name but consists of many different organisations all over the world that are doing everything from helping orphaned kids to rescuing orphaned turtles — working on social, economic, personal, political, global levels. And it doesn’t get reported.

The Great Turning is this shift from the industrial culture of economic growth at all costs, from seeing humankind as something separate from the web of life, towards the mindset of a life-sustaining and life-enhancing culture where we really value the life around us and where we embody earth care, people care and fair shares.

Sounds great but how to convince people to actually do this shift? To embrace it, first you need to develop the mindset of abundance. And as far as I can see, we mostly focus on scarcity. What’s happening in the UK now, the whole Brexit affair, is a product of scarcity thinking.

It’s a really big question. A part of it needs to be role modelling. Instead of saying “You gotta change your mind”, we need to embody the attitude of abundance, gratitude and generosity. We need to start from ourselves because this is where our influence begins.

Isn’t it a bit passive way?

I would rather call it an embodied way. It’s also about giving a voice to this new paradigm. Donella Meadows talks about speaking from the new paradigm: speaking from the place of abundance rather than trying to convince someone that their old paradigm doesn’t work anymore. It’s important though to remember not to come across as too aggressive with it. Choose your moments. Don’t challenge everything anyone says, be constructive.

I guess it will take time because bad news spreads like a wildfire and they are rarely counteracted by positive stuff. I often get disheartened despite my best efforts.

I think that people are hungry for good news, for hope and positivity. But at the same time, there is denial. People are scared to get hurt and disappointed. Because we don’t know what will happen — and not knowing is a part of the Great Turning.

A part of my work now is moving into what I’m framing as Cultural Emergence. It brings together systems thinking, cultural awareness, design and connection practices. It’s looking at how we can create cultures of appreciation, connection and encouragement — and how to do it quickly.

By definition, we don’t know what will happen with emergence. Life is emerging, it’s unpredictable.

It has the same qualities as the water I’m drinking: you wouldn’t know that water would come into being from looking at oxygen and hydrogen. We wouldn’t know we’d have consciousness from looking at the action of the brain cells, we wouldn’t know a cake coming out of its ingredients. And so we don’t know what will happen when we take positive action. We might become this magic ingredient that seems really small and insignificant like the baking powder but gives rise to the cake.

We don’t know what ripples our actions will cause but they may be what the Great Turning needs.

All we can tell is whether certain actions support us in our self-care, in our need for purpose and whether we are doing good or harm. And beyond that, we need to trust that our smallest actions are still contributing to the overall sense of the culture of wellbeing, care and connection that we need to foster in the world. Even if they seem confined to our family unit, to our most private world. They still help to emerge the culture we’re looking for.

Beautiful words that give hope to everyone who doubts their purpose in life. I was going to ask you about your Activating Cultural Emergence course. Now it seems clearer to me but when I saw it first on your website, it sounded a bit like teaching magic.

In some ways, it is magic because it does have that mysterious ephemeral quality to it. This is one of the foundations for Cultural Emergence: we don’t know what will happen. We need to step forward into the unknown and we need to learn how to do it. It is framed in a new way, moving slightly away from permaculture which in its name has the contraction of “permanent culture”. We really see that’s unrealistic — we are not actually trying to create a permanent culture.

What we’re trying to do is to emerge a new, life-sustaining culture or cultures in plural because there isn’t one culture, we’re not trying to homogenize the whole world. We need multiple cultures that celebrate diversity.

Creating a culture is a process. It is an active verb. Cultures have been emerging since the dawn of time. And what we’re trying to do with the Cultural Emergence Toolkit is to give us tools to start on the path of this nourishing regenerative vision in our family, workplace, neighbourhood and to use them immediately to bring these benefits straight away. They provide us with momentum — now, not in a distant future.

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Photo: Looby Macnamara

I think it’s very important. We are getting more and more impatient and want feedback and results straight away. We don’t like planting oaks for the seventh generation to sit in their shade, so to speak. I’m not saying it’s a good thing but I think it’s wise to relate to this sense of urgency.

You also wrote about another very important thing — that permaculture thinking and new culture thinking shouldn’t be about living without, about giving up — but about showing another side of abundance. I grew up in Poland under martial law. When relative affluence and entrepreneurship made its way to my country in the 1990s, we wouldn’t want to hear from wealthy western nations that our single-use plastic bags were not eco-friendly. At that time we really didn’t want our tote bags and willow baskets anymore. Plastic bags we could throw away meant we were getting rich.

This is the challenge. We can’t say: “You can’t have what we have. I know we’ve got it and really we shouldn’t have but we’re not going to give it up — but you shouldn’t get it in the first place.” There’s no fairness in it. We might want to say: “Your sense of community is valuable and your willow baskets are beautiful. Don’t go the route we went, don’t lose what you’ve got because you’ll regret it one day.” But it’s kind of like an adult saying to a teenager: “Don’t make the mistakes I made”. Not a very successful approach.

And there is the other side of this coin, which you touched upon: what is perceived as a luxury and how simplicity can be seen as impoverishment. These terms and these beliefs are coming out of the mindset of consumerism, capitalism. And the same mindset breeds the preconception that people are superior to nature. We need to reclaim living in simplicity. Again, it boils down to the role modelling. But of course, it’s a challenge: how to do this without being patronizing? The best way is to start from our own backyard.

You are a part of the Permaculture Women’s Guild. You teach a lot in different places already. Why have you joined other 40 female teachers there as well?

When I did my Permaculture Design Certificate in 1999, my teacher, Pippa Johns, said that she had become a permaculture teacher because the world needed more women teaching permaculture. And that little seed took root. Permaculture is a microcosm of the world and currently in the world, women’s voices are less heard than men’s. Women’s status is often undermined. We have to work harder to get the same status and salary. There’s a lot of unacknowledged privilege for men. There’s a lot of challenges for women.

And while permaculture has the fair shares ethic which guides us to more equality, the privilege is still there with the inequality and the disparity.

We can even get caught in the belief that there are more men teaching permaculture then women around the world. Actually, there are an awful lot of women who do teach permaculture.

But it’s also about a recognition that one of the strengths of women is collaboration. So when we come together, we have a stronger voice and the feminine voice really needs to be heard in permaculture and beyond. Men also have a feminine voice that we could do with hearing more. I am a part of the Permaculture Women’s Guild because I think together we have more chance of emergence that often leads to unexpected and beautiful things.

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Photo: Dana Wilson

In the PDC run by the Guild there is a strong social component.

Social permaculture is often implicit in the curriculum of face to face courses because you’re working with groups. If it is ignored completely then the course tends to have a kind of implicit failing because you need to give some attention to the group dynamics. But the issue is that the body of work in the field of permaculture has grown so much over the last 40 years with the timescale of the course not growing equivalently. This is partly where the myth of permaculture being only about land-based systems comes from. There is an expectation of learning about Earth care and there is little time to allocate to other sessions.

I wonder what the permaculture movement would look like if the PDCs spent the third of their time on the three ethics: Earth care, people care and fair shares.

Fair share is often the one that gets the least attention — which is a shame because it’s a fundamental ethic and has so many layers to it.

I like Maddy Harland’s proposition to rename this ethic “future care”. Maybe that would make people more aware of how important it is.

You’ve written another book which also touches upon permaculture. 7 Ways To Think Differently, is something I recommend a lot. It’s such a short book but every page is eye-opening. And the length is not scary to people new to the subject.

That was the intention: to make it concise and accessible but potent. You can read it on a train journey and then embody it for the rest of your life.

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