“Permaculture Teachers & Transition Schools.” Interview with Matt Bibeau, Mother Earth School (Portland), by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Magazine

“Young children are deeply aware and impressionable. It wouldn't be fitting to try to teach permaculture to them in the same way we think of teaching adults. It has to be embodied. It has to be built right in to the experience. The very design, approach and learning environment should communicate the principles of permaculture at work, and demonstrate nature's efficiency, functionality and beauty.” (MES)

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Intro to Permaculture for Youth & Child Educators

Course Topics:

* Applying PC Principles to Teachers & Teaching
* Therapeutic Effects of Nature-Based Activities
* Permaculture Classroom Management
* Bringing gardens to schools & schools to gardens
* Plus a hands-on activity and more if there's time!

5441 Southeast Belmont Street, Portland, OR
Thursday, December 12, 2013
6:30 PM to 9:00 PM
Registration: $25.00/per person

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Interview with Matt by Willi

Define permaculture vs. sustainability in this post-occupied world?

In order to give my perspective on this, I would like to look back a bit farther to the emergence of modern environmentalism. I can remember in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, as an environmental science major, when the term “sustainability” began to come into widespread use. It was a refreshing departure from all terms that started with “environmental” because of the polarization that existed most prominently since Rachel Carson’s publishing of Silent Spring and the initial divergence of economic and environmental interests at a national political scale. Environmental defense strategies and socio-political interests clashed often since, and the era of David Brower-style environmentalism found some success at the expense of a widening of the gap between perceived eco-minded and econo-minded. We have to keep in mind the role of the media in perpetuating and exacerbating this divide, but it existed nonetheless. The stone of David in his battle with Goliath was the endangered species act, and it was leveraged for all it was worth. And without knowing much about birds and forests, plenty of folks loved or hated the spotted owl. The battles between essential habitat and logging interests are one of many such battles.

Sustainability has multiple embedded meanings. Its success as a meme can be attributed to two main realms: that it evoked a call for balance—a carrying capacity—as a strategy for social and environmental change, and it included economics back into the fold in a way that was palatable enough for policy-makers at varying levels of commitment and integrity across the globe. Its offspring were many. Google search sustainable or sustainability to see what I mean. What I observed during my years in grad school in the mid to late 2000’s was that academics rushed to brand their intellectual incarnation of it, some with more of a longing to be published on the topic than to have any helpful role in collaboration with wider efforts. In my experience, the city/university institutes and collaborations in Portland, OR happen to be the shining example of a seizing of intellectual ownership of sustainability while failing to address some of the most very basic and home-hitting phenomenon that might give the movement credibility among the disenfranchised Americans, and with those anywhere else in the world, most especially in countries whose poverty levels and access to essential goods and services are far worse than even the most underprivileged in the USA.

In my experience, the Occupy movement represented a national and international news media event that drew its fame from its most basic message that the majority of Americans—and the majority of global citizens as well—have such a minute amount of the overall wealth that our effectiveness in most corporate and political challenges—and therefore our very rights--are undermined by this inequity alone, and that a shift HERE would empower the lower 99% to actually even afford to compete legally, politically and otherwise. Even for the Americans who didn’t camp out or take to the streets, he famed slogan of “We are the 99%” offered a clear, newsbite-worthy glimpse into the gross misappropriation and inequitable distribution of wealth in our country and around the world. A recent study of 5000 random Americans conducted by a Harvard professor and economist revealed that not only does the general public desire more equitable distribution from where we think it is currently, but that the actual distribution is immensely far from where those who were polled think it is (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM) (http://www.businessinsider.com/inequality-is-worse-than-you-think-2013-3).

While I certainly would not argue that proponents of the sustainability movement ignore this disparity, I do believe that in compromising the harder realities of the situation and changing our diets to "consumption LITE", the sustainability movement has rendered itself largely ineffective in influencing change at a scale that might address the most severe issues before irreversible damage is done. And there are a growing number of professionals who are now maintaining that we may have already passed the point of no return where significant warming, ice melting and massive disruption and displacement of human populations is inevitable (and indeed is already happening at a smaller scale).

If one thing is clear to me from the perspective of the “post-occupied world” (while also acknowledging that much of the world continues to be under occupation of colonizing cultures), it is that people are suffering. They are grieving. The American dream has become a nightmare and the solutions are mostly weaker versions of the problem. And whether it’s the academics, government agencies or corporate policymakers that are taking a turn at defining it, the lot is so often tangled in the political cobweb that the edges of the movement (the radical stuff) have become faux pas topics and receive little or no attention.

As sustainability transitioned into another way to talk about development and to recruit students to remodeled college degree programs, a whole huge group of people were left with a whole lot fewer folks in positions of stature, tenure and the like working daily to make their lives immediately better. There are undoubtedly some fantastic organizations and efforts out there, and many worthy efforts whose scope is focused wider than the local scale, but for every one rooting for the folks who live day-to-day, paycheck to paycheck, there are probably 100 or 1000 that have nothing to do with it. Amid all the fanfare of conferences, summits, and countless eco-promises and sustainability statements, there’s too little action reaching too few people, and a lot of reasons why people are understandably struggling or in distress. And an increasing number are desperate to varying degrees, and therefore willing to take desperate measures, which some of us witness in our homes and communities and others see nightly on the evening news.

I think that the most tragic error of the sustainability movement has been its infatuation with working with the strongest and most socially and politically comfortable links and leaving far too much on the wayside. Occupy brought attention to the edges but also branded itself as edgy, and while it experienced relative success in drawing unlikely supporters into the streets in numbers for a common cause not seen since the Vietnam era, it also lost the majority of its base with the dissolution of the camps. And while many new groups spun off from that first tidal wave of action and attention, they seem to be having a more difficult time keeping supporters engaged and maintaining common cause among the causes.

What permaculture has to offer, in my opinion, is a design to find and strengthen the common cause, and open up opportunities for action that can be initiated right at home, in the yard and around the neighborhood. Permaculture is immediately relevant to those who bear the burden of the current imbalances, injustices and a shortage of access points to correcting them. As a design approach, it focuses on the weak links first and offers guiding principles for how to strengthen them locally and responsibly. As a movement, permaculture has the potential to draw together the households, neighborhoods communities and so forth in a way that takes most advantage of matching needs and resources, as opposed to all having the same needs and relying on the same outside entities to supply them to us. We’re not going to drop natural gas tomorrow, that’s understood, but even the skill sets of improving the energy efficiency of homes would be a service in the community, and the local barter and trade economy would be like a neighborhood version of Craig’s List.

Permaculture as a movement has yet to see its most glorious days. The work ahead of us is to demonstrate to our friends, neighbors and communities that we in fact CAN meet more of our needs locally, be they culturally or agriculturally, and in so doing, we can discover new ways to leverage our collective power and inspire others into action. A necessary ingredient to this success will be the acceptance of wherever people are in their journeys of learning their impacts and changing their patterns, and focusing more on the direction that we need to be going in terms of reducing certain things and increasing others, and arranging ourselves and our surroundings to the greatest benefit based on the nature of the intended design and function.

I believe that the overwhelming sense of grief, urgency and desperation that many are facing will be well served with the kind of action that puts more of our own lives in our own control, while also improving the condition of our surroundings (at first) and others, if the excess of local resources enables us to broaden our work to wider horizons. I believe that the fruits of our labor can speak louder than any talking head of any department or movement ever could, and be more effective in implementing long-lasting change for the widest possible audience than any demonstration ever could. As world history has shown us, interrupting business as usual--or even overthrowing the government—is possible, and has been done, and the value of mass demonstration has been proven many times, but the trouble has ALWAYS been in creating a lasting change. It has happened, but is rare. The pattern has all too often been that the new system falls into the same patterns as the one that came before because we never strengthened our roots and built up appropriate communities of support. Permaculture’s likelihood of establishing new patterns that meet the needs of the people in a way that is life-positive and politically neutral seem to be very promising, and worth ample discussion on how it can be implemented with this very goal in mind.

Many in the permaculture often focus on food production and related politics (i.e. land rights, toxics and sharing). Are you teaching teachers, parents and children to build resilience and take to the streets if needed?

In my own permaculture teaching, I start off with clarifying for people the wide reach of permaculture, paying homage to its roots as an agricultural design and offering numerous cultural examples, including but not limited to education, finances, business, and policy. From my time working with the non-profit, The City Repair Project, I learned—and now teach—a form of taking action that is based on designing at the scale of homes, neighborhoods, schools and communities, and inviting the broader community to participate in the reclamation and recreation of our own places; places of living, of learning, of converging. And so in this tradition, taking to the streets is either to meet neighbors and invite them to a potluck, to ask for chicken manure and offer apple pie, or to assess what services are wanted and provided locally to share locally.

This community-based work also aims to inform and empower local groups of people to envision what they want to change locally, providing some of the training and resources to help them make it happen. The Village Building Convergence is an urban permaculture strategy that has seen relative success and is known internationally. Its design always has room for improvement, and with any system that is finding fertile ground socially, the incorporation of the feedback is one of the most essential parts of the process.

How do you suggest we organize and fund folks, many without soil to grow a yield, or things to share, to seed local permaculture projects?

I believe that everyone has something to share. Some are just in more immediate need than others and are unable to contribute in their current set of circumstances. Some people have sunny yards, some have fruit trees. Others can’t grow much at all in the soil, but can learn ways to take advantage of potted gardens or systems of barter and trade that share. The organization is most effective in small enclaves at first, and as a universal design principle for building an inclusive movement, we have to design for the audience we’re hoping to inspire into more collaboration and action. If we’re hoping that folks are going to be interested enough to inquire and practice some of these strategies and techniques, they have to be able to recognize enough of what’s happening first.

My teachers have instilled upon me that the question with the most relevance in permaculture is, “What are you designing for?” Trying to maximize the food grown on your lot while creating new habitat and other ecological services is a worthy goal. Doing it in a way that inspires several other homes on your block to sheet mulch their own lawns and have a go at it is even better. Figuring out whom on your block knows how to help you frame your greenhouse and trading some veggies that they don’t have or can’t grow takes it to the next zone of effectiveness and empowerment. And on it goes…

What core training and experiences make for a successful permaculture teacher?

Having a relationship with nature since childhood got me off to a pretty good start. As much of a privilege as it is, being able to spend significant amounts of time in nature for much of my youth developed my keen interest in the natural world and supported me in deciding to pursue a profession that included youth and nature. Since permaculture draws so heavily from the patterns and processes found in and cycled through nature, exposure to these patterns and processes is the most efficient way to learn to see, apply, and then teach the application of them to our human-built world.

While many people are effectively practicing sound permaculture design in what they do, the permaculture design course marks the beginning of the awareness of this unique field of design, so that we can become more intentional and skilled at it. The PDC summed up much of my undergraduate and grad school learning in about 72 hours, and left me hungry for learning more. As an educator by profession, I was naturally drawn to a permaculture teacher training, which helped me to grasp the sheer magnitude of the application of permaculture, beyond what was offered in the introductory PDC. This also inspired a lot of the work of creating a teacher training for youth & child educators, because not everyone is going to take on teaching adults through the design course curriculum as a day job.

Aside from the value of fitting your permaculture glasses, so to speak, which I believe happens in the first weekend of a PDC or in a shorter introduction course, the rest of the work is in taking as many opportunities as you can to practice. Failures make for good stories too. And for those who don’t have access to classes, having access to projects and initiatives that demonstrate good permaculture design can help inspire one’s own practice of trying things out and seeing what works. Some of the most well-known permaculture teachers had no formal training in permaculture. They were usually very connected to nature, successful at implementing some of nature’s secrets in their farming, and were discovered and celebrated by the international permaculture community. Remember, WWND?

Please offer some insight into your call that permaculture teaching and design “demonstrate nature's efficiency, functionality and beauty?”

Nature has no waste, and thus offers us the greatest challenge to design systems that approach this level of efficiency. Where do we see room for improvement in the efficient and effective use of resources in how we plant and maintain our garden? Build or retrofit our house? In how our children receive an education?

The rich learning accessible to us through observing and interpreting nature goes well beyond the recognition that it has no waste. It’s that this great recycling of energy and matter—if left up to its own devices—will support diverse species and function as habitat for multiple species. It is intrinsically highly functional. That doesn’t necessarily mean maximum number of species, but it does mean maximum number of interactions and connections. Sometimes a mature ecosystem has less tree species diversity than its earlier stages of succession, but those trees that stand are literally growing up in the soils of past forests and, if undisturbed, are connected by a network of soil life so complex that we cannot recreate it. We can learn from it though, and bring aspects of what nature does so well into our design, and hopefully, get positive results. And if not, we try a different method or technique; try to understand a little bit more about how nature does it so well, and keep on trying. What are we overlooking? It can be great fun unlocking these secrets of the natural world and putting them to good work in support of a very simple set of ethics.

From classroom design and behavior management to community-based learning and everything in-between, finding the balance between designing for efficiency (creating more work to expand the learning edge can be a good thing), beauty (we want to be naturally drawn to what we’re creating, not deterred by it) and functionality (the better it works, the less you have to!) are all key. Whether it’s the garden we grow or the style in which we teach, permaculture design can demonstrate the wisdom found in nature and be utilized to improve the learning environment.

What did Marisha Auerbach pass on to you that you would like to offer to students in this course?

The offering that comes to mind was asked as a question to her in a class that we were teaching together. “How did you get into permaculture and gardening?” “I started eating flowers”, she replied. So in every course, at one of the potlucks, we always have a salad with many edible flowers in it. Many folks are so surprised and amazed that they are not only edible, but delectable and nutritious! I hope to help spread the permie/green thumb bug as well as she has, and I don’t leave out the flower salad. Learning how much of what is around us can be beneficial to us and learning how to use it is the skill of the ages, whether you’re making a salad or trying to figure out how a closet of boring classroom supplies or a patch of yard outside the classroom can be used to experiment and inspire.

Is permaculture a component of the Transition Movement?

It absolutely is. I recently had the privilege of hearing Rob Hopkins speak at an event that was organized as a “Permaculture & Transition Convergence”. Rob is credited as being the founder of the Transition movement. He shared that transition was born out of “viewing peak oil through permaculture glasses”. I often use the ‘glasses or ‘lens’ metaphor in my own teaching because it gives a more accurate sense of how permaculture is utilized to help us ‘see’ a better way to meet our needs.

Permaculture is also part of the sustainability movement, and the Occupy movement, and other movements as well. Permaculture has the unique ability to be a design approach as well as a movement. We can look back in history and see how Greek architecture was both design and movement, and permaculture shares this trait with architecture in that it’s not so much a thing, but a way to approach doing a thing. Transition has celebrated great success with its model of regional, national and international organization to effectively shift the conversation around the impacts of and alternatives to fossil fuel use over a very large area. There’s an opportunity for a feedback loop here, where the permaculture movement can learn from one of its offspring movements.

Tell us about your Heros and villains in the sustainability movement and please share a story about this from your community work.

I’ve been a bit critical of the sustainability movement in this piece, but that’s mostly because I want to challenge it to pay more attention to the edges, and to the people who are most in need. The truth as I see it is that sustainability has been an essential a stepping stone—a tipping point—on the journey towards being able to have our impact be a regenerative one. Many fine folks have dedicated their work and their lives to bridging the vast gaps between polarized interests, and this has been no easy work. All of these movements ride on the shoulders of the sustainability movement to some degree.

My heroes are those who risked their own egos and senses of self to break down internal barriers that cause harm to our friends, families and colleagues, and together, constitute the fibers of the blanket of oppressive culture that remains heavy upon most gender identities, most non-European cultures, and those who are politically or economically disallowed from the same opportunities that their more fortunate counterparts inappropriately leverage to maintain this inequity. It is this personal barrier-breaking work that will support the healthier functioning and the effective collaborations inside and between the many organizations that have an important role to play in what is sometimes referred to as the “Movement of Movements”; the school of fish that chase away the shark or the flock of chimney swifts that scare away the hawk. We’ve got to change the direction of some pretty big systems with pretty well-designed mechanisms for remaining in place and in power.

As far as villains go, it’s anyone who works inside of the cause that perpetuates the same kind of BS that we’re working so hard to change, mostly in regards to communication and the dominating opinion/put-you-down-to-lift-me-up phenomenon. That said, the opposite is also true (remember that principle?)...Inauthentic communication, as gentle as it might be crafted, is also detrimental to the cause because when real human emotions are happening, ‘cool, calm and collected’ can be very offensive and in some ways, passive aggressive, and when human emotions are not given a space to be expressed, they harden and cause dis-ease.

In almost every organization I’ve worked in, I’ve witnessed and been a part of both of these extremes. What seems to be in most need is for a greater willingness to be vulnerable, wrong, and sorry. I'm sorry it took me over 30 years to begin to figure some of this stuff out, and for all of the BS I've perpetuated in the struggle to have my own ideas heard and my ego protected. It's a life's work, this journey of self-transformation. A healthy community is one that creates the conditions for these transformations to occur.

Do you agree with all of permaculture’s ethics and principles?

I think that the simplicity of the ethics is its greatest strength. I’ve seen different lists of principles and whether the list is 10 or 40 principles long, they all have value and create edges for inquiry, exploration and (self) reflection. As principles, however, they are simplified and sometimes worded to rhyme and to be remembered, as a literary device. The real work is to find ways that the principle could be true, because it is the exercise of applying them—first in concept and then in practice—that will develop your skill set as a designer. Thinking of ways that they might NOT be true would be a fun exercise too. I’ll have to try that sometime.

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Bios –

Matthew Bibeau is the Executive Director of Mother Earth School. MES is an outdoor preschool through 3rd grade located in Portland, OR. The school also offers adult education programs, where Matt teaches Permaculture for Youth & Child Educators with Kelly Hogan. Matt is an active permaculture teacher, youth mentor and community organizer. He hold a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of New England and an M.S. in Leadership for Sustainability Education at Portland State University, where he studied under renowned permaculture author and teacher, Toby Hemenway and specialized in the development of garden-based education programs within the city. Matt has worked extensively with the City Repair Project's annual Village Building Convergence and currently serves on the boards of the Learning Gardens Institute and the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust.

Kelly Hogan is a co-founder and lead teacher at Mother Earth School, as well as a mother of 2 middle school-aged children. She received her Waldorf teacher training from the Micha-el Institute in 2006 and her PDC in 2009, and has been weaving together the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and Bill Mollison ever since! Kelly and Matt also pursue training in nature crafts and homesteading skills and enjoy passing what they learn on to the children in their school and summer camp programs, as well as to the adults in their courses such as the upcoming permaculture teacher training for educators scheduled for July 20-26 in Portland, OR and June 15-21 in Taos, NM.

Connections –

Matt Bibeau
Mother Earth School
MES on Facebook

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