The Merits and Pitfalls of the Permaculture Design Course

In this post, I will feature a discussion about some of the advantages and disadvantages of the Permaculture Design Course. I have seen a number of posts on the Facebook group called ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ asking about PDCs and whether they are worthwhile. Since I consider this a thought-provoking question, I shall do my best to answer it below. Afterwards, I will link you to some other discussions on this topic that other permaculture instructors have written.

My own experience of PDCs is that I attended my first PDC in 2013, did a Gaia Education 4-week Ecovillage course in Scotland in 2016, and co-taught a PDC in April 2017. I also volunteered on two different farms for six weeks total in the UK. In this way, I have fourteen weeks’ experience in the PDC and volunteer farming world.

From this, I will be able to suggest ten advantages and ten disadvantages of PDCs as I see them. After listing the advantages and disadvantages, I shall share my own experiences of the points listed.

Advantages

  • The PDC can be a very inspiring course, especially for beginners.
  • The curriculum covers a good overview of modern issues in agriculture and design.
  • It covers many different disciplines and promotes interdisciplinary and holistic thinking.
  • It attracts people who tend to have a positive attitude and want to change things for the better.
  • Can help with networking and meeting people, or finding people with whom you may want to live in community with
  • Promotes a healthy lifestyle, especially to make better food choices – such as eating less meat and more vegetables, and eating food with less pesticide poisoning
  • Invites you to criticize some aspects of conventional agriculture that may be taken for granted in areas you live, such as monoculture (growing a single form of crop in a given area, typically year after year), pesticide use, GMOs , fertilizer use, and soil ploughing, among others
  • Allows you to understand the beginning of how we might respond as a species to climate change
  • Teachers can be knowledgeable and teach you things you’ve never heard of or never thought of
  • If done well, the course should shift one’s paradigms of thinking about the environment, ecology, farming and design.

In my own experience, I felt inspired by all the courses I have taken. I feel that I am better informed about modern farming issues, and feel more empowered to act about climate change. I met many interesting people, some of whom are still my friends today. I have improved my diet to eat less meat than I did before – at this moment, about two-thirds of my meals are fully vegetarian. I buy organic produce for foods such as strawberries and tomatoes, because those have thin skins and could easily be penetrated by pesticides. I learned that all life follows spiral and fractal patterns, the same way that galaxies move through the universe and water runs across a landscape. I never would have thought to ask any teacher about this.

Overall, I can certainly say that PDCs shifted my paradigms of thought.

Disadvantages

  • The courses can end up being very expensive.
  • Some may consider 2 weeks to be a long time investment, or be unable to get two weeks off work. To be considered a PDC, the course must contain at least 72 hours of instruction.
  • Owing to the high price of some courses and the investment of a minimum of 72 hours of study, these courses are often accessible only by the middle-class and elites, and are therefore not sufficiently revolutionary or radical.
  • Permaculture courses are unspecialised, and do not adequately prepare you for a career in agriculture.
  • The course is theoretical, offering limited practical experience. Furthermore, if you want practical experience and then try something like WWOOFing (volunteering on organic farms), you may find that it is often unsupervised and unsupported, and that you tend not to learn much beyond the tasks you perform – i.e. your role is that of a volunteer laborer, not a student.
  • Some permaculture teachers want you to work on their property and for you to pay for the privilege of doing so, without providing a sufficient educational component in return. (Done well, this is typically sold as an internship, at a greatly reduced price from the fulltime course, and has at least 90 minutes of instruction per day included).
  • Some permaculturalists are overly idealistic and may sell the course as being able to have a greater impact than it actually can. Many graduates leave the course not knowing where to start.
  • Some permaculture educators do not know the subjects very well, and are amateurs.
  • You may find that you feel inspired to start a new garden or project, but cannot afford the necessary equipment and supplies.
  • Some participants may feel that the ‘community’ created around the course is an artificial construction that helps people ‘feel good’ together, without putting them in truly challenging conditions as communal living is guaranteed to do.

My first PDC was $522 for two weeks including accommodation, which is an outright bargain considering the excellent instruction I received (in South Africa). However, the Gaia Education course was $1,685 for four weeks (in Scotland), and this included a youth discount I received – it would have been $2,366 otherwise. This was very expensive on my budget at the time, and I definitely felt the strain of affording it.

After the course and to this day, I still feel like a newbie at gardening and agriculture. I don’t feel confident and ready to advise people about what to do on their site.  I don’t feel that I can presently afford the capital outlay to design a garden that I’d truly feel proud of. I do feel that some of the people I’ve met have been idealistic but not that practical, such as a group of people who want to start an ecovillage but who seem to lack the financial understanding, willingness, and ambition to operate a business in the economy.

I’ve also met some people who are overly inclined to believe what they are told, and been guilty of this myself. For example, I don’t believe there is any solid evidence that consuming GMOs makes people infertile. While it is certainly suspicious that the same company that makes the pesticides makes the GMOs, and I would generally advise others to be careful of such obvious self-interest in an industry that purports to feed the world, that does not mean that the technology itself is malignant – until it is proven to be so. I wouldn’t want any Bt toxin inside the food I eat! However, maybe the food is benign if the genes have been engineered to survive a long drought? I don’t know – and I’m happy to admit that I don’t know, and I don’t believe anyone does conclusively know the answer to this yet.

Here are some other opinions and writings about this topic:

Amy at Tenth Acre Farm: How to choose the right permaculture course

Permies.com:  What is a PDC? This page features submissions from Paul Wheaton, Toby Hemenway and Jack Spirko – all well-known in the permaculture world

Jack Spirko: What exactly is a PDC?

John Kitsteiner: Why I will not teach a PDC… for a long time

Milton Dixton: Is taking a permaculture course worth it? 

In my next post, I will discuss alternative ways to learn permaculture.  Stay tuned!

Do you think you will take a permaculture course? Have you taken one already? What might you most like to learn and why? Let us know in the comments below.

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