Certification in Permaculture Education

by Tom Ward

I took my first design course in 1982 at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Andrew Jeeves and Bill Mollison were the instructors. I already had B.S. degrees in Forestry and Botany. In the early 70s I was an administrator for a program at Laney College in Oakland, CA (Wild Edible Plants and Woods Lore) and in the mid-80s I spent two years at D-Q University (a Native American and Chicano institution) as acting Agriculture Dept. head and administrator for curriculum development and for Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation. I received three Diplomas of Permaculture from Bill Mollison in 1985 and I have trained many active Design Course teachers, several of whom apprenticed with me. Now we are way down the road in Permaculture and I get a lot of questions about certification and curriculum.

The story of Permaculture trainings

In the early phases of Permaculture education Bill Mollison invented a series of institutions and certificates so that we could present credentials and thus participate in academic, business, and government conversations. The idea was that we would need to mimic the mainstream institutions in order to gain audience and entrance. Thus we had the Permaculture Institute, with an address in Australia and the Permaculture Academy, with international accreditation filed in Fiji. There was once an international registry of Permaculture Designers which was updated and discussed at International Convergences. These began in Australia in 1984 and have continued at several-year intervals through the Ninth which was held in southern Africa in November, 2009.

The Permaculture Design Course or Pc Consultant’s Design Course was originally outlined in a document called the Permaculture Design Course Handbook. The 72-hour curriculum on which it was based was adopted as a standard at the 1st Intl. Convergence, and the Pc Institute published the Handbook the following year. The certificates commonly issued used the logo from the front of the book Permaculture: A Designer s Manual and the address in the Handbook and on the certificates was for the Institute in Tyalgum, New South Wales.

The Academy offered a series of diplomas (two-year experience-based certification with a thesis submitted) and advanced degrees (Masters and Doctorates), and used a system ‘ of Vice Chancellors located in various regions of the world. One submitted documentation to the nearest Vice Chancellor who forwarded the applications to the Permaculture Academy for the issuing of diplomas and degrees signed by Bill Mollison as the Chancellor. Although in the module called “The Permaculture Scene” at the end of our Ecotopian courses we still talk about opportunities for further Permaculture education, the Academy is no longer functioning and folks asking for diplomas are referred to Scott Pittman at the Permaculture Institute USA in Santa Fe, who files the requests, or they are told to send the application to their design course facilitator for later action when we do have a system re-established.

The Permaculture Institute of North America (PINA), founded in the mid-80s, now exists only on paper. Maritime Permaculture Institute was formed in the Pacific Northwest in the early 90s for regional networking, and has not met recently. Permaculture Drylands Institute was very active for 15 years but is now moribund. A number of regional institutes have persisted over two or three decades (Southern California, Central Rocky Mountains, Northern California) and more are still being created (Permaculture Institute New England). There were and are also various Permaculture magazines published both locally as newsletters and internationally (such as Permaculture Magazine in England, Permaculture Activist in the USA and Permaculture International Journal in Australia, the last now defunct).

These continue to be the advertising platforms for courses and gatherings. In the USA some intentional communities became campuses for serial courses and periodic regional convergences.

Where to from here

Bill Mollison is now elderly and still teaching but the elaborate set of institutions he created have mostly succumbed to lack of funding and continuity. Nonetheless, in the USA we still find Permaculture courses claiming that all this international structure is functional or just in abeyance. The logo of the Permacuiture Institute has been deployed without permission by T-shirt manufacturers, advertising campaigns, and on course completion certificates.

Many permaculture teachers have continued to reproduce the certificates they received in the early 80s. Bill Mollison was heard by many early “permies” to encourage all just to get to the work and use the term ‘permaculture’ any way that might lead toward the sustainable ends taught in the courses. By the late 80s, ‘permaculture’ had become a commonly used word in the English language and was found in some dictionaries. Litigation before the courts failed to find that the term had a copyright. Although Bill Mollison launched litigation to limit the use of the concept in other authors’ publications, these efforts failed to confine the use of the original ideas. Eventually, Mollison refused to certify individual teachers, claiming that the two-week Design Course needed to include all the material in the Pc Designer’s Manual.

Since the late 80s, the original Course Handbook curriculum has grown with the addition of new information on sustainability and the design process, especially the use of a long list of principles. Some instructors continue to hand out the Course Handbook and ask participants to confirm that the subjects have been covered. Most often, the 72-hour minimum course length — which includes the design group preparation and presentation, has been spread to more than 90 hours so as to include hands-on projects, exercises, games and additional subject matter. Some of the Course Handbook subjects have been dropped to make room for new material, and asking participants to be responsible for the Course Handbook curriculum has been used to justify handing out the original certificates. Weekend series courses often do not much exceed 72 hours, although the participants may meet locally outside of class time in between weekends to work on their design projects and to do hands-on exercises.

Some Permaculture Design Courses have also devolved into feel-good celebrations and excursions into related speculative topics of the spiritual, intuitive, or political realms.

Thus, the Permaculture movement has grown with experience and with the ongoing discussion of ecological design found in many compatible books, courses, and magazines. “We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities” (a common “permie” aphorism). Permaculture is understood by some as using specifically the zone-and-sector method of design supported by a collection of principles of design and couched in the three core ethics: Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Distribution of Surplus. Careful observation and natural pattern mimicry are the all-encompassing skills. To many, Permaculture has come to mean a basket of ideas and practices that lower carbon footprints and promise a more sustainable future for human habitation. Writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson have popularized the term in science fiction novels and in what I call “permie-pulp.”

There is no existing organization to which teachers are answerable for a consistent curriculum or adherence to measures of educational success. The movement is metastasizing and we find that some institutions of higher education are now offering so-called permaculture courses. Many other colleges and universities are offering ecological design courses which may have been inspired by permaculture but do not use the term. We might want to celebrate the success of a mimetic idea infection.

Since 1990 we have seen attempts at forming permaculture teachers associations: Western PTA and Eastern PTA in North America. Discussions in the initial meetings included the invention of new logos and the regularization of curriculums as well as some cooperation in scheduling to ease competition. Both these start-ups floundered on the usual rocks of undercapitalization and lack of time for discussion.

Permaculture courses have been organized on a freelance basis, and represent a grassroots movement which has trained many thousands of designers who have done great stuff on a local and small experimental basis. This is remarkably successful even if it is wild and inconsistent. To institutionalize such a system of idea dissemination may be inappropriate to the ecological-crisis we now find worldwide. Exclusivity and pretensions of true knowledge are old paradigm conservatism. Open source sharing is more appropriate to the challenges now before us.

Some teachers may be unhappy with competition from what might be considered “woo-woo” courses, or about the integrity of what curriculum is used and what is missing, but it would be a waste of everyone’s time to try to police or constrain the abundance. Reputation is more important than advertising. With the wealth of courses being called permaculture, potential students would do well to seek references and information on the teachers’ reputations to find the most useful education.

We are way beyond the place of warning the public [of future environmental calamities] and infiltrating traditional institutions as Bill Mollison intended early in the movement. As we watch the unfolding of predicted disasters, local food security and lifeboats for survival of species seem to be the main agenda. Build your own and they will come. Focus locally and work with neighbors. Forget flying all over the world and placing magazine articles to advance a career. Shrink your ecological footprint, organize locally, and hope that some of us are well placed for unknown eventualities.

The inertia of governments and educational institutions as well as the ongoing greed and shortsightedness of corporations and the very rich and powerful offer no guidance or hope for reform. At this point, “only go where invited” seems appropriate.

We should certainly continue to offer design and advanced courses but how can we pretend that a coherent movement or coordinated Permaculture institutions exist? Certainly we might rebuild or form new certifying institutions — a few of the traditional institutions are still somewhat in business, and I would prefer to be able to send students of mine to further study and good communications within the movement.

What we are doing

Cascadia Permaculture Institute was formed by Jude Hobbs, Rick Valley, Toby Hemenway, and myself in the late 1990s in order to have some standards in curriculum for the Design Course and Advanced Courses. We have all had extensive experience in design and in teaching an expanded version of Mollison’s original course. We still hold to the core permaculture curriculum, but we have added exercises and much new material on principles and patterns. I call this the Ecotopian curriculum, and many other West Coast teachers are using this basic format. There is still a need for some standardization and documentation so that inquiries can be accommodated and so that students attending advanced courses have some common experience and language.

Our Cascadian teachers use local knowledge to illustrate design issues and we all change the content in flight as the situation and participant readiness demand. We have accumulated much more material than can possibly be presented in the over 90 hours we now teach in a Design Course. We are all very busy and since we are front-line activists without budget or walls, none of us has had the time or felt the need to get formal academic accreditation for our curriculum or certification of instructors.

I can still imagine that Permaculture education might someday be part of all public schooling. We have had a high school program in Ashland, Oregon for ten years. The early students are coming back to us and thanking us for the inspiration as they move into graduate study and careers that were catalyzed by their early exposure. Very gratifying that!

So carry on bravely and pass the inspiration please.

Tom Ward lives in Ashland, Oregon and may be contacted at tomward [at] mind [dot] net.

How to Do a Proper Certificate

To present a proper certificate to those who have completed a course of study one should consider several factors:

  1. In the academic world of educational accreditation the main concern is not to misrepresent. So claim only that the certificate is from the organization that, sponsored and presented the course. If one has a relationship with other institutes one could say “in association with” on the certificate. Thus we can rebuild a legitimate consistency of curriculums.
  2. Be sure to state “certified by” and the organization’s name, date, address, and contact information on the certificate so that anyone questioning its value can contact your organization and confirm the content and the completion of the course. With typesetting easily available on every computer, producing your own attractive certificates ought to be within every teacher’s capability.
  3. Sign the certificate. At least the head instructor should sign, and it would be great to have all instructors sign each certificate. It is unnecessary to have contact information for the instructors. Co-instructors who are not part of the same Pc Institute as the head instructor may sign as a Guest Instructor.
  4. The design of the certificate is important only in so much as it contains all the necessary information and can be framed and hung proudly by the participant. Any logo used should not be borrowed from any other organization without permission. Often one sees a logo on a certificate which has been slightly altered from some other, but it would be best if we used logos which represent the locale and the ecosystem of the course. The traditional Andrew Jeeves/Mollison logo is still used by the Permaculture Institute USA.
  5. Certificates are useful when a graduate needs to cite educational experience. Some people are now coming from developing countries to take advanced courses such as Teacher Trainings, and they use such certificates for job advancement and access to further education. Anyone who issues educational certificates needs to keep curriculum documents which can be sent on request. A group photo with a sign indicating where the course took place and its title is useful for folks from overseas who may need lots of documentation to use the certificate to qualify for government jobs.