Social Justice and the Permaculture Movement: Where Do They Intersect?

social justice and permaculture

My Southern black grandmother grew up on a farm in the years before they migrated to San Francisco as part of the Great Migration. I’ve heard her talk about her childhood family life a number of times. Her stories of growing their own food, the backbreaking work of caring for their own livestock, and the necessity of older children taking care of the younger ones always felt so removed from my clean, amenity-rich life growing up in a quiet California suburb.

Her stories have also always felt disconnected in my mind from the permaculture and urban farming movements of today. These sustainable lifestyle choices seemed branded by (often white) liberals in a way to which I sometimes still have a hard time relating. Living in Oakland it’s hard not to see the ways that urban homesteading and urban farming can be tools of gentrification and displacement if not integrated into the full richness of the community fabric.

But my grandmother’s experiences growing up and the modern permaculture movement are not supposed to be separate. While I don’t consider myself a part of the permaculture movement, I know that its participants aim to live off the land in a more sustainable way, particularly when it comes to growing one’s own food. The deep wisdom and reliance on the earth that black folks, indigenous peoples, and many other communities of color have cultivated for centuries is permaculture.

If “permaculture” as a functional term is not expansive enough to include the comprehensive recycling that poor folks have practiced for generations, then perhaps it’s time to search out another term and for the permaculture movement to take a long, hard moment of reflection. Why has the term come to mean something new and innovative or a “returning to,” rather than growing out of a near-continuous line of learning that has run through certain families and cultures over time?

Impact Hub Oakland held an event last week on permaculture that tried to get at some of these tough questions. An all star panel of wise black women (and a refreshingly token white male) discussed what permaculture means today, why the movement needs to be more diverse, and how it should be something that we all incorporate into our lives.

I’ve had a few light brushes with the permaculture community in the past and this event reminded me of the one underlying current that I feel draws many people to the movement: positivity. As opposed to many of the other social justice events I find myself at, permaculture people tend to focus on the power of a physical change — healthy food — to change our entire physical and socioeconomic ecosystem.

I can’t help but wonder if this messaging has an impact on the crowd that ends up showing up at permaculture events. The “grow-your-own” ideal seems in some ways to be so much easier than messing around with all this community organizing and these international economic pressures that determine our development patterns. I can understand the powerful energy that a community can galvanize by latching onto the idea of more urban farms and a more sustainable way of life.

But I also feel we must be losing something in the separation between the “positive” movement of permaculture and a more somber movement, such as anti-displacement work for example. When the activists in both communities are siloed from one another yet working in the same neighborhoods there’s a problem. There has to be a way to draw the language of multiple movements closer together.

In the end, both the permaculture folks and the broader social justice field are talking about the same issue: empowerment. They’re talking about individual and community ability to step forward and take meaningful action to shape their lives. Perhaps not without challenge, and certainly as a united effort, but to take action nonetheless. Shouldn’t we all be connected in that endeavor?

Photograph: © ComputerHotline for

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