The Permaculture Design Course (PDC)

In this blog post, I will share a brief history of the Permaculture Design course, and discuss the different forms in which it can be taught and learned. After that, I will introduce a debate about institutionalization, quality control and freedom of information. Finally, I will share an outline of the content I co-taught in a PDC in early 2017 so that you may gain an idea about what PDCs are about.

In 1981, Bill Mollison taught the first Permaculture Design Course based on his paradigm-shifting book, Permaculture One, that he had published in 1978. The course was three weeks long. He soon realized that most people didn’t have 3 weeks to spare, so he shortened the duration to two weeks.  This became the standard and most common form of PDC that is now taught. A minimum requirement of this course is that it contains 72 hours of instruction, and Bill recommends that it lasts at least 12 days long, so that it doesn’t result in 9 or 10 days of cramming in information, but that there is some time to integrate what has been learned.

Another format of the course is that it is taught over six weekends, which allow working participants to join. This tends to be more appropriate for city dwellers, and allows more time to integrate the information. However, it does not create the feeling of a ‘community’ of people in the same way that a full-time two-week course does. In this way, the ‘paradigm shift’ purpose of the course could potentially be compromised, as it is less immersive.

Finally, it is also possible to take the course online. This is perhaps the cheapest and  most flexible option in terms of travel, and it allows you to choose the instructor you most favor.  The best-known teacher for an online course is Geoff Lawton, who has taught 15,000 students since he first took his course from Bill in 1983. Josh, the curator of this site is one of Geoff’s online students. The online course format suffers from a similar limitation to weekend courses in that the sense of an in-person community forming around the subject is lacking.

Bill designed the course so that any person who had completed the course could both call themselves a ‘permaculture designer’and teach the material to others. This is simultaneously a positive and a negative aspect of the course. On the positive side, it prevents the information from becoming overly institutionalized and available only to a privileged few. On the negative side, it is low on quality control, because an amateur may teach the course, possibly teaching information that is out of date, irrelevant, or worst of all, incorrect.

Nowadays, there are institutional bodies that instructors can voluntarily become a part of. The best-known one is the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia (PRI). When I co-taught my first PDC, in April 2017, I assisted Buzz Gori, who is a member teacher of the PRI.

In order to become an accredited teacher in this institute, apply here. The requirements are:

  • to have held a PDC of one’s own for a minimum of two years
  • to have taught or co-taught a minimum of 50 hours in Permaculture
  • to have a reference from a PRI-accredited teacher and 3 learners
  • to have implemented two full-size permaculture designs
  • to have written a full set of teacher’s notes, comprising at least the outline of Mollison’s original Permaculture Designers’ Manual 
  • to pay the institute AU$330 once-off and AU$220 once per year.

As you may gather from the web page linked above, there is not an explicitly prescribed curriculum for Permaculture.  I believe that this is in accordance with Bill’s wishes not to institutionalize the curriculum itself. Bill and others recognized that information changes, and that the foundation of good permaculture knowledge is an understanding and appreciation for the land and the Earth.  For example, different techniques work better in different climates. I will write a featured post on climate and geography later in this series to make this more explicit.

However, I’ll include a short introduction about climate types so that you can get an idea of what I mean.  Here in East Texas where I am currently staying, the land is flat and the climate is warm, humid and wet, with rain falling year-round, but especially in June, July and October.  Meanwhile,  Cape Town, a city I stayed in for eight years, is mountainous, warm, dry and has vastly different rainfall, with 78% of the year’s rain falling between May and September.  This makes Cape Town a brittle landscape. I also stayed briefly in the United Kingdom in 2016 during late spring and early summer, where the region was receiving up to seventeen hours of sunlight per day. As you may imagine, these differing temperatures, rainfall patterns, sunlight hours and landforms give rise to very different permaculture information and techniques being relevant and applicable to your given situation. It is also apparent that understanding permaculture theory is heavily reliant on natural science, biology, geography, physics, chemistry and many other subjects.

Hopefully, I will by now have whetted your curiosity enough that you want to know what might be taught in a Permaculture curriculum! Below, I include a general outline for what I co-taught in 2017 with Buzz.

Buzz’s day-by-day curriculum outline is:

  1.  Foundations of Permaculture Design
  2. Design Inspirations
  3. Sustainability Worldview
  4. Regenerative Agriculture
  5. Soils and Plants
  6. Farming Systems
  7. Waste Water and Sanitation
  8. Built Environment
  9. Energy Descent Planning
  10. Building Sustainable Communities
  11. Integrate Sustainability
  12. Closure and Networking

This particular course features plenty of information about our modern understanding of sustainability, and particularly problematizes how we might actually continue to survive on this planet if we keep destroying our environment and ecosystems. This is both meant to ‘wake one up’ to the magnitude of the troubles we face, and empower one to come up with solutions to the environmental difficulties of modern times.

While I have shown that there are many differences between different permaculture courses owing to a lack of standardization, the one aspect that tends to be common to all courses is that at the end of the course, all students are meant to have completed an individual or group design that they present to the class. A requirement of ‘graduating’ the course and ending up with a certificate is to work in a team or individually on a design plan, which typically consists of a map with a base layer detailing the site as it presently stands, a sector layer, a zone layer, and a layer with design elements that show how the site can be improved in a permacultural way. The group or individual must then present their design plan to the instructor and the rest of the class, and will usually receive feedback in-class, which benefits not only the presenting people but also the rest of the audience.

There are many ways to host a Permaculture Design courses, many good courses available, and also many courses that need to be improved before they are worthy of customers.  In my next post, I will discuss what, in my opinion, the merits and the pitfalls of the Permaculture Design course are, and also share some other people’s opinions on this topic.

Do you think that Permaculture instruction should only be practiced by registered and accredited instructors? And if so, accredited by whom?  Let us know in the comments below!

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