The Permaculture and Dialogue Connection

“One of the first myths I want to challenge is that humans are always doing damage to the earth. I will show you how humans can create healthy, thriving, regenerative landscapes,” says Rob Avis on the first day of the Permaculture Design Certificate, the 72-hour consistently sold-out part-time course he teaches now on a regular basis in Calgary and Edmonton.

Rob Avis (right) and one of his permaculture students, Jordan Saunders, demonstrate installing a rainwater harvesting system during the Western Canadian Permaculture Convergence in August 2012.

Faced with growing awareness of the big picture problems that are too many to name, among them peak oil, deforestation, climate change and more, Rob and Michelle Avis sought out hopeful opportunities for change. They wanted to shift their careers and their lives to those more in alignment with their values.

After traveling the world on several extended trips to seek out inspiring solutions to sustainable living, including time spent studying and interning in Europe, Australia, and across North and Central America, they realized that permaculture was the most comprehensive solutions-oriented system that they could dedicate their lives to studying, teaching and advancing.  Today they run Verge Permaculture in Calgary, a successful education and consulting business, and have quickly become a valued social and economic hub, connecting permaculture students, teachers and practitioners across Western Canada.

A tour of Patterson Springs farm following the Southern Alberta Permaculture Convergence in August 2012, with their extensive permaculture-inspired gardens.

Permaculture is the shortened form of “permanent” and “culture”. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the concept in Australia in the 1970s. Calgary is currently one of the most active locations for permaculture in action across Canada. (Visit the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia for more info).

Back in April 2011, Waterlution hosted an Art of Hosting Water Dialogues (AoHWD) training in Canmore, and Rob attended. I had long known that Rob and Michelle’s work in teaching permaculture and my work in facilitating dialogue toward social change, especially recently with my focus on hosting conversations around meaningful work and career transition were a natural fit (especially since the collaboration with Adrian Buckley of Big Sky Permaculture and Calgary Harvest had been so fruitful – pun intended!).

The permaculture ethic provides a viable frame-work for decision-making in the context of meaningful work. The three-fold ethic entails: care of the earth; care of people and return of surplus. At the root of it is an appreciation that cooperation, rather than competition, is key to creating viable, resilient living systems. Twelve design principles expand on the ethic and provide effective thinking tools in redesigning human habitat.

At the AoHWD training, Rob gained a better understanding of the purpose behind Waterlution’s – and the Meaningful Work Project’s – focus on dialogue and systemic change, and how Art of Hosting was a way of emulating living systems in the way that we host conversations and learn – in the same way that permaculture is a systems approach to designing human habitat.

A harvest of the group conversations from the “Earth Repair Cafe” hosted by Meaningful Work Project on the opening night of the Verge Permaculture fall 2012 part-time PDC

Hosting is defined as “an emerging set of practices for facilitating group conversations of all sizes, supported by principles that: maximize collective intelligence; welcome and listen to diverse viewpoints; maximize participation and civility; and transform conflict into creative cooperation.”

Based on my experience with Waterlution, as well as several other leading environmental education programs, I wanted to incorporate this hosting approach into my own work.

Discovering permaculture added another layer of depth and understanding of systemic change to the underlying philosophy of this project.

The practice and philosophy of permaculture presents a solutions-oriented approach for responding to the threat of climate change and the urgency of economic transition. While the concepts take some time to understand, this comprehensive philosophy offers a design ethic for living in collaboration with – rather than in opposition to – living systems.  According to Dr. David Suzuki, quoted by Permaculture Now, “What permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet.”

Not surprisingly, many people interested in permaculture are looking to make a career and life transition, and are looking to develop the skills, personal networks and confidence to take the steps they need to move forward.

One of my favourite sessions during that training was the ProAction Café – a great method for starting to meet these needs of community building and brainstorming toward action planning. This facilitation technology is a blend of the well-known World Café and Open Space methods. It is an effective facilitation tool that creates a fun, interactive space to collectively brainstorm business and project ideas of participants. It taps into the intelligence of the group to offer insightful feedback, resources and advice on specific projects for volunteers within the group. (Check out the user’s guide here).

The hosting team created a “Friendly Dragon’s Den” theme, encouraging all the participants to give constructive feedback to those with projects, and borrowed a four-part feedback matrix from Tad Hargrave of Marketing for Hippies, where participants could share their ‘sugar cubes’ (aka warm fuzzies), advice, resources, and ways they could support these projects.  I entered the Dragon’s Den with my own inquiries on how to develop the Meaningful Work Project into the future, and what effective partnerships I might be able to form in the community.

Conversations to explore bold questions and set goals on the learning journey during the Earth Repair Cafe on the opening night of the Verge Permaculture fall 2012 PDC.

On his feedback sheet, Rob simply wrote across the page in large letters, “Let’s work together.” As a result, we have created a work exchange where I will be incorporating more dialogue-based learning into his 72 hour part-time Permaculture Design Certificate this fall, including hosting an “Earth Repair Café” (borrowing from World Café), teaching how to use a learning journal (find out more about journaling as a contemplative practice) and check-ins with the students, and a Pro-Action Café at the end of the course.

And the best part for me? I am thrilled to take the course myself, and have more opportunity to practice my facilitation skills and pilot my ideas around “Meaningful Work for Earth Repair” – a course of my own I hope to develop in the future.