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The Path to Permaculture – Graham Burnett Interviewed in Growing Green, the magazine of the Vegan Organic Network

Graham Burnett turned vegetarian in 1977, shortly after leaving school, and then became vegan in 1984. Made politically aware, in part by the punk music scene of those times, he was involved in a number of campaigns such as Hunt Saboteurs, Ban the Bomb, Anti-Apartheid, and opposing the Poll Tax. But after a while Graham began to concentrate on what he stood for rather than what he stood against – and this took him in a slightly different direction.

In addition to cultivating his own garden and allotments in Southend in Essex, where he lives with his family, Graham nowadays teaches permaculture and writes extensively on the subject. Graham founded Spiralseed in 2001, and he has worked with projects and organisations including Comic Relief, Naturewise, Green Adventure, the Vegan Organic Network, Ars Terra (Los Angeles), NuArc Health and Wellbeing Centre (Puglia, Italy), Wild Earth Farm and Sanctuary (Kentucky, USA) and Ekosense Ecovillage (Croatia), as well as a number of Transition Town initiatives. He has also over the years written a number of books and booklets (including The Vegan Book of Permaculture, Permaculture a Beginners Guide, Well Fed Not An Animal Dead, and Earth Writings).

Earlier this year Graham taught a permaculture course in Italy, and in summer 2015 he was one of the instructors in the first ever vegan permaculture course in the USA. He continues to teach and organise courses both at home and abroad.

What led you to permaculture, and how did The Vegan Book of Permaculture come about?

I first came across the word ‘permaculture’ in 1981, in an edition of Peace News magazine. The word itself struck me as interesting, and I filed it away in some back cupboard in my brain for future reference. It was a number of years later in 1994 that it came up again. Ever since leaving school in 1977 I’d been involved in what might be described as ‘protest culture’, putting my energies into campaigning against racism or taking actions with animal rights groups such as the Hunt Saboteurs and various anti-vivisection organisations. Throughout the 1980s and up until the mid 1990s I was involved in pickets, protests, demonstrations and direct actions with the Anti War movement, opposing the Poll Tax, opposing the Criminal Justice Act, resisting GM crops, stopping the road-building programme and so on. At some point I began to feel the symptoms of ‘activist burnout’, and came to see a pattern, realising that my focus was almost exclusively on ‘stopping’ rather than ‘starting’.

Around this time I picked up a book called The Permaculture Garden by Graham Bell, which I thought might have a few handy tips I could use on my allotment. In fact it was a switching point, a book full of ‘solution thinking’ rather than ‘problem thinking’, and flipped me away from a mindset of focusing my energies ‘against’ to instead what I was ‘for’. Shortly afterwards I attended an Introduction to Permaculture course led by the late Carl Smith, then a full Permaculture Design Course (PDC) with Naturewise in north London, which introduced me to all kinds of inspiring people and projects in the capital and beyond. I started implementing ‘social permaculture’ in my own local community by setting up a LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) in Southend, as well as hosting one of the very first VON gatherings, attended by David Graham amongst others, in my own front room!

As for my own book, I’d always brought a vegan ‘take’ to permaculture in the UK, ever since self-publishing my own book Permaculture – a Beginner’s Guide in 2001. Because of this Maddy Harland, the editor of Permaculture Magazine, invited me to write a book of vegan recipes for Permanent Publications. Somewhere along the line it grew into a somewhat larger work; that is, not only a book of animal-free recipes which can be made with non-imported ingredients, but one which also explores the application of vegan permaculture principles and design, in contexts ranging in scale from the personal to community and landscape levels.

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Maddy Harland wrote a rather interesting piece on why she and others at Permanent Publications wanted to publish your book. This was in spite of her strong belief “…  that animals, both wild and farmed, have a place in ecological land restoration”. What do you make of her views – that far less meat should be eaten but  “… domesticated animals are an integral part of our landscape and our ecosystems”

Maddy has been a great friend for many years and has been very supportive of my book, even though she doesn’t agree with all my views. I think what we share is a discomfort with ‘monocultures of the mind’ – in permaculture we encourage diversity in our gardens and landscapes. So too we would both encourage ‘polycultures’ when it comes to thinking about solutions that will lead us to a regenerative future for the land and for society. Maddy has also published Simon Fairley’s Meat – A Benign Extravagance, a book that makes many strong points about the unsustainability and exploitative cruelty of our current industrialised meat production systems, much of which resonates with me. Indeed I cited his calculations, updated from Ken Mellanby’s 1975 book Can Britain Feed Itself?, about how much land a vegan Britain using permaculture methods and design would require to be “self-reliant in food, fertility, fibre and fuel” in The Vegan Book of Permaculture (around one third to a half of the agricultural land currently available, incidentally!).

Fairley argues for adopting a diet that includes far less meat and animal products, as well as taking personal responsibility for killing the meat that omnivores consume, a view which is a world away from today’s industrialised factory farming systems. However there is obviously a lot in that book that I can’t agree with. For example Fairley argues that feeding inedible garden and kitchen wastes to pigs is a very efficient way to convert these into edible forms of protein. Which may be true – it might also be true that sending small children up chimneys is a very efficient way of sweeping them. Personally I’d prefer to see a cultural paradigm shift wherein we evolve to a degree that the former has become as unacceptable as the latter!

Examples of successful vegan organic projects such as Tolhurst Organic, Growing with Grace, Plants for a Future, Brook End Growers, and others championed by VON, demonstrate that it is indeed not only possible to grow food without the inputs of domesticated animals, but that stockfree methods can in fact improve fertility levels and regenerate the landscape, especially once we start to move away from a dependence on annual crops such as grains and instead look at the potential of perennials and tree crops as our staples.

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It’s clear from your writing that you have a very non-confrontational approach, which surely makes it easier for you to integrate with, and be respected by, the wider permaculture movement. Even so, you’ve mentioned an ‘anti-vegan backlash’ from some quarters following the publication of your book. Can you enlarge on that?

I learned long ago that a confrontational approach usually tends to be counterproductive. Judgement and criticism rarely changes hearts and minds, but instead just cause people to become defensive and closed to new ideas. Better to ‘seek to understand before seeking to be understood’; that is, staying open and receptive to others’ opinions and viewpoints, whilst at the same time striving to ‘speak one’s own truth’ in an unequivocal manner. For that reason I wrote the book in a way that I hope is accepting of where people might be at in their lives.

Personally I believe in the intrinsic right to self determination for all sentient beings, yet I also accept that veganism might not be the solution for everybody. But if we can agree that current western expectations for meat and dairy to be available on the table three times a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, are globally unsustainable, and that we all need at least to think about lifestyles and diets that are less dependent on animal products and the inputs these entail (which I think few permaculturists would argue with), then we do have some common ground. Most people seem to find such a viewpoint reasonable, and by and large the reception from the permaculture community, including permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, has been very positive and welcoming. Yet the very existence of my book seems to have provoked a bit of ire from some who perhaps find the ideas it contains threatening. I’ve been accused on social media (usually by people who haven’t even seen the book!) of being an ‘anti-science based ranting vegan’, ‘forcing my propaganda down rational people’s throats’ and even ‘promoting hate-speech’!

Some criticisms have been rather more measured however, and are worthy of a response. One commenter asserted that “veganism isn’t permaculture, Bill Mollison wrote the book on the matter and was most emphatic”. Which isn’t actually true. In his Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual Mollison talks about the efficiency of a home grown ‘vegetarian’ diet, provided it is not dependent upon imported produce such as excessive amounts of soya, and that ‘wastes’ are returned to the soil. However, what he describes as ‘vegetarian’ sounds to me closer to ‘vegan’ as he talks about a diet based on ‘direct herbage to people’ without being passed through other stages of the food chain (such as being converted to dairy products via cattle, etc). In fact his description of ‘sustainable vegetarianism’ is virtually indistinguishable from the philosophies of Kathleen Jannaway and the Movement For Compassionate Living’s vision of a UK broken up into sustainable self-reliant communities, mainly meeting their needs from tree crops and garden-scale vegan organic food production. At the end of the day though, does it really matter what permaculture’s ‘founding father’ thinks about veganism anyway? Permaculture is essentially ‘open source’, and will evolve and adapt, with infinite iterations of the original concepts emerging over time and in different situations. Those that ‘get it’ will always be open to new ideas.

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Apart from the obvious (no farm animals, and all food being vegan), if someone comes on one of your courses what might they find different from a mainstream permaculture course?

To be honest, the content of the specifically Vegan Permaculture Design Courses that I’ve been teaching aren’t hugely different from many other PDCs I’ve been involved with. The focus is really on design skills – learning to see patterns in nature and in human and social contexts, plus giving us the tools and confidence to take responsibility for our lives and actions, in settings ranging from food production to ecological building to woodland management to ‘green’ economics to urban regeneration. Obviously, however, we would choose teaching venues that are vegan-sympathetic, such as Wild Earth Animal Sanctuary in the USA, or Brook End in Somerset, and would focus on stockfree methods of soil regeneration such as using green manures and tree crops rather than examples or case studies that depend on livestock. Other than this participants can be confident that we are providing a ‘safe zone’, where they will not be criticised or attacked for their lifestyle choices, whether vegan or not. Feedback from our first course was that this aspect has been greatly valued, with one person telling us that they had previously had to leave a ‘conventional’ PDC halfway through, due to feeling judged and excluded for their vegan beliefs by fellow participants, and even by the tutor.

pdc-students

In addition we have created spaces on the course for discussions around the wider implications of ‘veganic permaculture’. For example, how do we dismantle and replace industrial and animal agriculture with systems that are life-sustaining and liberatory? Another theme that emerged was whether a vegan permaculture (vegaculture?) needs a ‘fourth ethic’ in addition to ‘Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares’ – one of ‘Do Least Harm’. Is it enough to simply ‘care for’ our non-human fellow earth-citizens whilst our relationships with them continue to be exploitative, or should we actively promote their recognition as self-willed beings with an intrinsic right to exist free from unnecessary harm?

I think there can be an inherent tension between Animal Liberation’s core belief that we ‘strive to survive causing the least suffering possible’ and the permacultural maxim that ‘we are a part of the earth, not apart from the earth’ (ie that we are a part of the natural cycle of life and death and need to acknowledge our place in that). Not all these questions are easy to resolve, and neither are there always simplistic solutions in what is after all a complex world, but I feel there is value in at least beginning the conversations.

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You’ve taught courses outside the UK, including in Italy and the USA. And the 12th International Permaculture Convergence also took place in the UK in September 2015 – What are your thoughts on the international dimensions of Vegan Permaculture?

It’s been good to notice that interest in a vegan direction for permaculture has been expressed in other parts of the world, which suggests that the time is right for such ideas. I’m looking forward to running the second Vegan PDC with my old friends William Faith and Joe Kilcoyne at Wild Earth Animal Sanctuary in Kentucky this summer, and have also made connections with Justin Nigh, a VON supporter in Australia, and others. I’ve also run Vegan-friendly Permaculture courses at the NuArc Wellness Centre in Puglia, southern Italy which has been a great experience. The centre has been set up by a Niki and Andy, old friends from the punk days in Southend on Sea, and its been real fun working with them and the students, coming up with design ideas to make the centre more sustainable by regenerating the 6 acres of landscape in ways that do not exploit animals, and have also had invitations to visit France, Spain, and other parts of The States. The international connections are very exciting, and the courses I’m running overseas have been a wonderful opportunity for which I am extremely grateful. However in many ways it’s also important to focus my attentions closer to home. There is plenty still to be done in the UK, not least in my own town of Westcliff on Sea. I’m developing a course called ‘DESIGN 4 ACTION (Active Community Transformation In Our Neighbourhoods)’, which will be based on the PDC syllabus but also specifically tailored to empower folks to address local challenges with design-based solutions.

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Kathleen Jannaway, who founded the Movement for Compassionate Living, has been a big influence on you. What did you particularly learn from her?

Around the time I became vegan in 1984 a small booklet called First Hand First Rate was doing the rounds amongst the local anarchist group that I was involved with. It had been written some years earlier by the secretary of the UK Vegan Society, Kathleen Jannaway, and as well as arguing the case against animal exploitation in a way that was rational, unsensational and unassuming, it also made clear the wider connections between animal farming and environmental damage. In addition this modest booklet helped me to recognise that it is as easy to lead an unsustainable, unaccountable vegan lifestyle based on imported, fossil fuel hungry convenience foods as it is to live as an unsustainable and unaccountable omnivore, and raised awareness of the importance of considering issues around self-reliance and food production.

I actually got to know Kathleen and her husband Jack in the early 1990s, and our young family attended a number of the famous garden parties held at her home in Leatherhead in Surrey. I was always impressed by her razor sharp intelligence and deeply compassionate nature, as well as her commitment to non-violence and what she would describe as ‘truth force’, and feel privileged to have known her. To this day the MCL and Jannaway’s vision remain massive influences on my own interpretations of the philosophies of both veganism and permaculture. I will still strongly recommend and ramble on about how visionary her seminal booklet Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree is to anybody who is unlucky enough to listen to me!

Who else has influenced you, and are you involved in other projects outside permaculture?

Gosh! I guess my influences and the people I respect are incredibly wide ranging and diverse; far too many to list, as I’d have to name just about everybody I’ve ever known or met as they have all offered new perspectives on this wonderful world of ours!

Just a few people whose ideas have particularly resonated with me though might be: Peter Kropotkin and his writings about mutual aid and co-operation being important but overlooked factors in how both the natural world and human societies function; Robert Hart’s pioneering development of the Forest Garden concept; Raoul Vaneigem’s Situationist ideas in his Revolution of Everyday Life – through to the Do It Yourself ethics of the punk movement.

Another person for whom I have massive respect for is fellow Southender Wilko Johnson, not only one of the greatest guitarists on the planet, but with a life-affirming attitude towards his terminal cancer diagnosis (which he has since overcome!) that is an inspiration to us all. Which in a roundabout way brings me on to what I get up to outside of permacultural activities. Wilko frequents the same pub as me, the Railway Hotel in Southend. As well as boasting the best vegan and vegetarian menu in Essex, The Railway is an epicentre of musical and artistic activity including writers, poets, film makers, DJs and anything else that breaks down the stereotype that Essex has no culture!

Photo c/o Nick Range

Photo c/o Nick Range

I’ve designed and implemented a raised bed organic vegetable garden for people with learning disabilities at the back of the pub, and also occasionally put on gigs at the venue, including film shows and live sets from Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud from Crass and Dunstan Bruce from Chumbawamba (also vegan advocates back in the day) – plus I actively help to promote the pub’s jazz club and run a monthly open mic afternoon for people with learning disabilities. Other than that I play guitar and sing in an acoustic punk band called Warty Hubbard and his Magic Cupboard with my good friend Wayne, so manage to keep myself pretty busy! I don’t seem to find much time to get bored anyway.

A final and perhaps difficult question – are you optimistic about the future?

Not a difficult question at all! My faith in the amazing creativity of peoplekind gives me no doubt that we have the potential to build the most wonderful future for ourselves and our fellow non-human earth citizens. Sure, we face some pretty daunting challenges as a species right now, but the fantastic and inspiring people that I meet all the time on permaculture courses or in the vegan movement, or who are doing stuff and actively making positive changes happen in their communities, or out in the wider world, will always renew my faith that together we can do anything!

“Not all permaculturists or permaculture projects are vegan, and I’ve often been asked whether a completely animal-free permaculture is even actually possible. My response is, of course not, and neither would it be desirable. For example, how would we fence out the earthworms that build our soil and maintain its fertility, or the bees that pollinate our fruit trees and vegetables, and why ever would we wish to? In fact, we actively design in features that are intended to attract wildlife: Ponds for frogs, toads and dragonflies, and flowering plants to bring in the ladybirds and hoverflies that keep populations of potential pests like slugs and aphids in check, and are essential to maintaining healthy productive ecosystems. What we don’t include are those ‘system components’ that we believe perpetuate exploitative relationships with our non-human earth co-citizens, such as pigs, goats and chickens, whose primary function is the production of meat, milk and eggs.(from The Vegan Book of Permaculture by Graham Burnett)