Permaculture in the margins: realizing Central European
A. June Brawner1
University of Georgia, USA
As the adverse effects of intensive, high-input food production are made increasingly obvious, alternatives
are ubiquitous; these localized alternatives can also be a model for resistance, creating space for the
negotiation of 'progress', particularly in marginal and peripheral places. Using an international permaculture
site in rural Bulgaria as a case study, this article explores the permaculture 'web of mutually beneficial
relationships' that are both social and ecological, informing a model for sustainable livelihoods in a
transformational time. Introducing the work of permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison to the rural post-
socialist transition studies of Stahl, Cellarius, and others, permaculture inspires progress re-defined through
subsistence and creative response to change.
Keywords: permaculture, food systems, sustainable development, Postsocialist Europe
Comme les effets néfastes de l'agriculture à forte intensité d'intrants externes sont faites de plus en plus
évidente, les alternatives sont omniprésents; ces alternatives localisées peuvent également être un modèle
pour la résistance, créant un espace pour la négociation de «progrès», en particulier dans des endroits
marginaux et périphérales. En utilisant un site international de permaculture en Bulgarie rural comme une
étude de cas, cet article explore le «réseau de relations mutuellement bénéfiques» de permaculture à la fois
sociale et écologique, informant un modèle pour les moyens de subsistance durables. Le travail du co-
fondateur Bill Mollison permaculture est introduit aux côtés des études de transition post-socialistes rurales
de Stahl, Cellarius, et d'autres. Permaculture inspire progrès, re-défini par l'agriculture de subsistance et des
réponses créatives dans un temps de transformation.
Mots-clés: permaculture, les systèmes alimentaires, développement durable, l'Europe postsocialiste
Los efectos adversos del sistema alimentaria convencional ha motivado la creación de muchas alternativas
agrícolas locales. Estas alternativas sirven como modelos de resistencia, abriendo espacios para la
negociación del concepto de 'progreso', en particular en lugares marginales de la periferia. Basándose en el
estudio de un sitio internacional de permacultura en la Bulgaria rural, este articulo analiza 'la red de
relaciones mutuas y benéficas' que son a la vez sociales y ecológicas, para contribuir a un modelo para modos
de vivir sustentables en un momento histórica de transformación. El articulo introduce el trabajo del co-
fundador de la permacultura, Bill Mollison, a los estudios de la transición del mundo rural pos-socialista
hechos por Stahl, Cellarius y otros, para inspirar una redefinición del progreso que integra la subsistencia y la
respuesta creativa al cambio.
Palabras Clave: permacultura; sistemas alimentarias; desarrollo sustentable, Europa pos-socialista.
1 A. June Brawner, PhD student, Department of Anthropology and MS student, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences,
University of Georgia, USA. Email: brawner "at" uga.edu. Thankyou to the editors and referees. This is the fifth article in
James R. Veteto and Joshua Lockyer (eds.) 2015. "Towards a political ecology of applied anthropology", Special Section
of the Journal of Political Ecology 22: 357-465.
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Journal of Political Ecology Vol.22, 2015 430
I first encountered permaculture in action during fieldwork in Shipka, a small town in the Balkan
mountains of Central Bulgaria in the spring of 2011. Here, permaculture was explained to me by Damyan2, a
young Bulgarian of Canadian birth and a permaculture teacher, as a philosophy of design that emphasizes the
modeling of edible gardens after observable ecological processes in order to foster regenerative and
sustainable agricultural systems. According to Damyan, permaculture might be practiced in pots in the
windowsills of a high rise urban apartment or on subsistence farms in the valleys of the Balkan Mountains.
While there may be as many definitions of permaculture as there are practitioners, it is a uniting framework
of philosophical and ecological principles that lends continuity to permaculture as a social-ecological, and
ultimately agricultural, paradigm. Primarily, through the positioning of the gardener as an agent of nature,
permaculture aims to maximize agricultural production while minimizing input and harnessing the efficiency
of time-tested interspecies relationships recognizable in dynamic social-ecological systems.
Perhaps because the reach of permaculture fails to fall solidly within any one discipline, few academic
works have given this 'philosophy of design' serious attention. However, it is worth noting that the deficit of
anthropological (and other academic) engagement with permaculture described by Veteto and Lockyer (2008)
has not prevented the influence of anthropology on the permaculture worldview. In addition to
anthropology's more recent and overt engagement with permaculture (e.g. Lockyer and Veteto 2013), a
number of anthropological contributions have informed permaculture from its conception. Perhaps the most
prevalent is the evolutionary perspective afforded by the archaeological record, which substantiates the
foundational permaculture perspective, that modern agriculture as a livelihood strategy is a relatively recent
event, and so should not be taken as the default mode of food production. In my experience this was a
consistent narrative heard at several permaculture sites. Further, historical ecology provides evidence that
traditional agricultural methods, such as those revived, reinvented, or otherwise mimicked in permaculture
gardens, are less environmentally detrimental and more sustainable than modernist agronomic approaches
(Armstrong and Veteto 2015). Additionally, the influence of ethnobotany is present in the permaculture
literature and in practice (Holmgren 2002). Ethnoecologists have long been interested in the myriad ways of
human subsistence across varied environments; in particular, ethnobotanists have documented how native
plants may be foraged for medicinal and culinary purposes, given the base of local ecological knowledge
acquired through informal pathways of learning.
With this historical—if subtle—dialogue between permaculture and anthropology in mind, I aim to
bring permaculture gardening, as an applied design science, into dialogue with engaged scholarship,
supporting the call for further collaboration between permaculture and applied environmental anthropology
(Lockyer and Veteto 2013:14). This aim is inspired by my time as a student-practitioner of permaculture in
Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), where I observed the tenants of permaculture utilized as the foundation
for an alternative strategy of livelihood in unexpected and meaningful ways. Understanding these ventures in
alternative agriculture as more than oddities at the edges (of Europe, of academia), I argue that the potential
for permaculture as a point of engagement in applied political ecology hinges on the opposition of
permaculture to nature/culture dualisms, evidenced in approaches to social and ecological challenges as
confronted and navigated by its practitioners. To illustrate this claim, I introduce my fieldwork in CEE as a
case study in social permaculture, highlighting permaculture's status as a design science that merges social
and ecological systems in its highly adaptable approach to livelihood. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of
pathways for engagement, or the 'operationalizable' possibilities for permaculture that warrant the attention of
an applied and socially just political ecology (Veteto and Lockyer 2015).
2. Lay of the land
While the concept of permanent—or renewable—agriculture in Western literature dates to early
colonial observations of traditional farming methods, permaculture as a portmanteau of permanent
agriculture was first described by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in their 1978 publication
Permaculture One. Essentially, permaculture principles seek to maximize output while minimizing effort by
2 The names used throughout this account are pseudonyms.
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mimicking nature's efficiency. These concepts, since developed by numerous other practitioners and now
taught internationally, are intended to be applicable to any location at various scales, utilizing ecological
theory and incorporating social components. Elements in permaculture design are prized for their multi-
faceted purposes, efficient use of space, and utilization of natural checks and balances. This informs
permaculture design; for example, many practitioners divide their garden into zones with consideration of
where the gardener will most reliably interact with plants: Zone One is closest to the residence and is home to
more high-maintenance or most-used plants, while Zone Five is the least-managed, least-accessible area.
Permaculture zones and design strategies can be shaped to fit any space and reworked to meet different wants
or needs (in Australia, for example, Zone Five may be shaped in a way to allow for better wildlife viewing).
The twelve principles of permaculture design, as outlined by Holmgren (2002), are:
1) observe and interact;
2) catch and store energy;
3) obtain a yield;
4) apply self-regulation and accept feedback;
5) use and value renewable resources and services;
6) produce no waste;
7) design from patterns to details;
8) integrate rather than segregate;
9) use small and slow solutions;
10) use and value diversity;
11) use edges and value the marginal;
12) creatively use and respond to change.
These twelve principles are in service to perhaps the most important tenants of permaculture, a core set of
ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Earth Care is addressed through an emphasis on the
sustainable and respectful use of natural resources. People Care and Fair Share do more to emphasize the
social aspect of food production; the former involves focus on healthy, holistic societies; while the latter aims
for equitable distribution and limits on consumption with the goal of helping achieve social and
environmental justice. As illustrated through example below, these principles are often interpreted through
both social and ecological lenses.
While not discussed in detail here, it is worth noting that permaculture is one of many diverse and
innovative approaches to sustainable food systems. Agroecology, the study of ecological processes within
agricultural systems, is one complementary field that is not connected to any specific method of farming (for
a primer, see Gliessman 2015). Regrarianism (a portmanteau of regenerative agrarian) is another, more
recent approach with origins in Victoria, Australia. Like permaculture, regrarianism adheres to a framework,
The Regrarian Platform, which includes human and natural elements according to context and scales of
permanence, conceptualizing sustainable agriculture as an exercise in "regeneration, restoration,
rehabilitation, rekindling, and rebooting" production at the landscape level (Doherty and Jeeves 2015).
Biodynamic farming, developed by Rudolf Steiner, is an early example of sustainable agriculture that unites
ecological processes in organic farming with an emphasis on spiritual and mystic viewpoints (see Leiber et
al. 2006). These and other alternatives to agriculture-as-usual are inspired by a holistic approach that
considers agricultural systems as social-ecological systems.
In this article, I draw primarily from fieldwork in Shipka, a town in the Balkan Mountains of Central
Bulgaria, as well as a subsequent visit to Shipka, which was part of a larger volunteer farmstay tour of three
Central Balkan towns: Shipka, Bulgaria; Škofljica, Slovenia; and Opovo, Serbia in June to September 2011
(Figure 1). I was originally aiming to better understand the assumptions, motives, and guiding philosophical
frameworks that underpin permaculture as a collective movement hinging on individual worldviews, and as
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an agroecological project with social and ethical tenants. My ethnography in Shipka was rooted in my
participant-observation as a student and volunteer as well as permaculture garden design course participant.
Shipka is a town with several permaculture households, a forest garden project, and an active educational
center; I draw the bulk of my data from each of these sites. 3 Some references are also made of my time in
the towns of Škofljica (a very small village with one permaculture homestead) and Opovo (a small suburb of
Belgrade where a commuting resident revived a centuries-old farmhouse and garden utilizing permaculture
principles). These visits took place within a three-year period (2010-13) during which I resided in Budapest,
Figure 1: Map of Sites: Shipka, Bulgaria (study site, red); other towns referenced: Škofljica,
Slovenia (yellow); Opovo, Serbia (blue). Source: A. June Brawner.
Contextualizing permaculture in CEE
Shipka is not extraordinary compared to small-town life in other CEE countries, revealed in
ethnographic accounts (e.g. Cellarius 2004; Humphrey 2002). Most young people hold wage-earning jobs but,
as Cellarius writes in her Bulgarian account, "when inflation turns monthly wages into the equivalent of
pocket change, one begins to question the logic of going to work every day versus looking for another
activity" (2004:150). For the older generation (and some of the younger) this other activity remains
subsistence farming, which is closely tied to social capital between villagers; residents bring gifts of home-
canned fruits and vegetables when they visit friends, assist in the birthing of neighbors' animals, and are
generous in the sharing of their homemade spirits (rakija). In Shipka and in Opovo4 I encountered similar
characters: the man with the distillery, the man with the straw, the woman with the cheese. Items are traded,
bartered, and gifted in addition to formal exchanges of cash; small herds of goats are led by resident men to
be taken to the communal flock each morning. The easy but steady tempo of village life mirrors seasonal
rhythms, which serve as a common pattern that unifies both locals and permaculture gardeners.
A contextual understanding of permaculture within CEE and other transformational5 regions must
therefore refer to the multifaceted marginality of their socio-ecological landscapes: geographically,
3 Shipka hosts the Balkan Ecology project, run by expats and conducting permaculture research, cultivation and
permaculture design training. Seeds and veggie boxes are shipped across Europe. http://www.balkep.org
4 I was not personally introduced to similar people in Škofljica, which was a more removed, intentional, self-contained
5 The pervasive consideration of CEE as a 'transitional' region appeals to a teleological model of development that is
often Western in orientation; rather, I refer to this case study as existing in a region of transformation, situated 'in
between'—a time and place that calls into question the mutual exclusivity of communism and capitalism, rural and urban,
progress and regression, and other familiar categories and narratives in the social sciences.
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politically, and temporally. Such liminal, transformative circumstances can be destabilizing and liberating in
their open-endedness and possibilities (Stoller 2008). Intermediate agricultural systems such as permaculture
can prove to be more socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable and beneficial, but they are
commonly overlooked by officials and policy makers (Wiersum 2004). However, particularly in CEE states,
livelihood strategies do not always wait for policy to catch up. Citizens in postsocialist states are not
unfamiliar with second, or informal, economies, and the 'peasantry' is often associated with black market
practices (Fox 2013; Stahl 2010). As one Hungarian friend related to me as we navigated immigration
bureaucracy, they have "always been used to finding the kis kapu": the "smaller-gate-within-the-larger", or
what I might refer to as a loophole. In this way, an everyday, cunning intelligence, metis—as Scott (1998)
has asserted—is not just disappearing, but it is simultaneously being generated under novel pressures.
3. Social permaculture in CEE: a case study
Vignette I: The principle of diversity: migrants and other transplants
'oбразцов дом' reads a sign hanging on the gate to John and Gwenn's property in Shipka, Bulgaria.
They presume the sign is as old as communism. They are permaculture gardeners. The sign was there when
they relocated from England and bought the house. Not being native Bulgarian speakers, they translated the
text but were still puzzled by its meaning. I added it to my notebook and spoke to Georgi (owner of a local
guesthouse) the next morning about its significance. He was impressed, and related to me that this sign had
been an important and prestigious marker during the communist period. These coveted signs were awarded to
the best-kept, best-maintained yards in order to set an example for others to follow. Today, as anxious
neighbors and nosy passers-by pause to gaze into the unusual gardens, they must first look past the glaring,
prized signage that informs them that they are looking at an 'Exemplary Home.'
This mark of distinction, now carrying a tone of irony, would have originally been placed on a
manicured, green, homogenous and weed-free lawn. The difference between this intended criteria and the
current aesthetic of the lawn-turned-permaculture project is impossible to miss. When I first arrived, David (a
long-term American volunteer at John and Gwenn's permaculture farm, who would subsequently relocate to
Shipka permanently), asked if I had seen other yards in town and noted how different they appeared from
permaculture yards. The occasional peeping eyes of nosy neighbors through the fence confirmed that they,
too, noticed the difference. The general tendency of permaculture to mimic patterns in nature leads to results
that are visually distinct from more manicured properties (Aistara 2013; Egoz 2000; Garoian 1998; Luke
1992), inspired by permaculture principle 7: design from patterns to details (Holmgren 2002). Much of the
manual labor in permaculture involves human activity directly shaping the earth into the most space- and
water-efficient patterns and shapes; including spirals, mandalas, and waves—all shapes found in 'non-human
nature', and noticeably missing from most of Shipka's orderly, though often equally edible, yards.
Such conspicuous differences have caused misunderstandings within the town. Georgi, at the local
guesthouse, admitted, "They do some strange things over there, but I suppose it's interesting—when you're
young. Everything is interesting when you're young." He noted that their methods looked unusual, and that
their project had overflowed into the neighboring property. Permaculturists—both local and visiting
ecotourists—were equally conspicuous. Permaculture events in town—which often include drum circles (also
noticeably absent from non-permaculture households)—are scorned by one elderly neighbor who blasts
Soviet marches from her window beginning at six the following morning; drum circles, she once
communicated to her neighbors, are not music.
Meanwhile, Damyan had been planting a symbolic rebuttal to high modernist conventions and
skeptical locals by scattering clover (Trifolium pretense) in his Bulgarian clients' yards: a plant most
commonly referred to as a weed, something more often eradicated than propagated. He argued that this low-
growing, self-fertilizing plant's stigmatized status is an arbitrary one that dates to World War II herbicide
manufacturing and marketing. There are echoes here of Robbins's account of industrial support for the
creation of herbicide rich American lawns (Robbins 2007). Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is another
ubiquitous so-called weed in Bulgaria. As Damyan puts it, nettle is like poison ivy in North America: a
"gatekeeper to the forest" which, as he explained, is a plant that guards the woods and allows only a select
few to handle it without negative repercussions. In essence, this 'weed' is the one that 'weeds out' those who
would take advantage or misuse the forest's resources. As it happens, Damyan has the ability to handle either
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Journal of Political Ecology Vol.22, 2015 434
poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle without pain or allergic reactions, which he interprets
as symbolic of his integration with the plant and animal world. He explained that stinging nettle is edible,
provides a range of nutritional benefits for humans, and is even palatable when crushed in a salad or cooked,
tasting similar to spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Permaculture gardeners in Shipka argued that nettle; along
with hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), chickweed (Stellaria media), dock (Rumex obtusifolius), and the
other 'weedy' staple foods are used in lunch salads and other dishes were once cultivated and used by locals
who were "more connected to the land"—after all, nature has no weeds. To legitimize another popular weed,
one informant even suggested the use of hemp in guild planting.6 This "little brother to the three sisters," as
he called it, may be beneficial when grown alongside the traditional three sisters plant guild of corn, squash,
and beans. I finally questioned Damyan directly: "What is a weed, then?" to which he coolly replied, "I don't
believe in weeds."
In its continual evolution, permaculture has been understood as an increasingly socially relevant
project (see Ferguson and Lovell 2014 for a systematic review). Social permaculture prioritizes the People
Care ethic advocated by permaculture gardeners. This is an emancipatory proposition; in the same way that
permaculture gardening optimizes relationships between all variables, values the marginal, and has 'no weeds',
social permaculture provides a framework for inclusiveness, equity, and social justice that minimizes outliers.
Mutually beneficial relationships fostered in the garden are replicated in the social realm (Macnamara 2012),
materializing as "contemporaneous interpersonal equity and intertemporal environmental justice",
particularly through the redistribution of surplus (Suh 2014:83). Reminiscent of these themes, permaculture
was explained to me by several CEE gardeners as permanent culture or permanent relationships. These
relationships are not just about having more things on a farm, but increasing existing interrelationships in
quantitative and qualitative ways (Aistara 2013). It is this network of relationships, this connectivity—rather
than the things they constitute—that defines permaculture's adaptability and systemic resilience.
Damyan's willingness to challenge socially-constructed categories extends to his self-assessment
regarding his nationality; born in Canada, he identifies as Bulgarian through a narrative that is more complex
than geography. He, like other gardeners in Shipka, have learned to use and value diversity (permaculture
principle 10, Holmgren 2002), a sentiment that extends beyond weeds. Scott (1998) discusses the
legitimization of categorizations for people as requisite for the legible populations required in statecraft;
Aistara (2013) extends this concept to weeds in permaculture gardening, which often distinguishes
permaculture yards from others and strikes discordant notes with neighboring households. Indeed many
people in Shipka are proud of their weed-free lawns, which would have once been honored with signage
acknowledging their "exemplary homes." With a similar pride, one local business owner in Shipka reported
that they had "no minorities" in their town. When pressed, he explained that he was referring to the
marginalized Roma, Muslim, and Turkish-speaking populations who I encountered in nearby villages
(notably, the English gardeners escaped his evaluation). John and Gwen, themselves migrants to Central
Bulgaria (though often framed as 'expats'), were in contact with several of these people and engaged with
them in personal and business matters; they valued their knowledge of animal husbandry, seed saving, and
other areas—in the process enhancing the resilience of their own livelihood through valuing the marginal
(permaculture principle 11, Holmgren 2002).
The status of plants and people as native or exotic is a basic example of the somewhat arbitrary,
culturally-constructed nature of such typologies. The permaculture gardeners' reluctance to place people and
plants into categories such as weeds, natives, or exotics was mirrored by their being the only people in town
who hosted the solitary Roma family as guests in their home. While some gave preference to locally-sourced
seeds (for reasons related to time-tested fitness of a varietal), they were not opposed to acknowledging and
6 The use of guilds in permaculture is notably distinct from its use in ecological circles; the former uses guilds to describe
an assemblage of mutually beneficial plants while the latter describes a series of species that exploit similar resources or
occupy the same niche. For further discussion on this and other idiosyncratic uses of ecological terminology in
permaculture, see Ferguson and Lovell (2014).
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utilizing 'less-native' species of plants (squash, for example) or animals and questioning the native/non-native
distinction (tomatoes, it was pointed out, are a relative newcomer yet an intrinsic part of Bulgarian cuisine).
Vignette II: The creation of abundance and the 'monoculture' of capital
"What is wealth?" Damyan asked a group of thirty permaculture course attendees. They had come
from Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Hungary, America, and Israel; leaving their respective ecovillages, suburban
homes, and studio apartments for a weekend spent in a small Bulgarian town, hoping to collaborate and share
mutual inspiration. When nobody answered immediately, he repeated the question in Bulgarian: how do you
define wealth? As hands began to go up, the answers were eventually compiled into one category: the
creation of abundance. He began to write everyone's answers on the chalkboard under this heading:
abundance of time, abundance of freedom, of freewill. Capital did not make it onto the board, nor did salary
or benefits, material possessions, or even shelter. That these gardening enthusiasts, reclining at the foot of the
Balkan Mountains on a kaleidoscope of quilts, would put such value in the non-material is not surprising.
That this group of young people would challenge one another to reproduce these values in their daily lives,
however, was unexpected for me as a newcomer to permaculture methods and philosophy. For these 'students
of nature', permaculture offers abundance on their own terms—in units of time, freedom, and freewill—
conceptualized as a diversification of investment that runs counter to capitalism's "monoculture of
In his permaculture course, Damyan concluded that limiting concepts of wealth to capital is a mistake;
it creates a "monoculture of commerce" equally as dangerous and unstable as the monocultural farming that
permaculture strives to correct. In this view, capitalists are monoculturalists; they "have all their eggs in one
basket." The lecture that followed this observation included an argument for subsistence living, citing what
was called 'primitive' work compared to 'modern' work. So-called primitive work (that done by people who,
in the past, practiced horticultural or foraging subsistence methods) required only about ten hours of work
weekly in order to survive. In a tone reminiscent of Sahlins' Original Affluence (1972), Damyan concluded
that the advent of large-scale, monocultural agriculture practices brought about longer work weeks and
introduced a number of previously unknown diseases and degenerative illnesses. Reformulating his original
question ("How do you define wealth?"), he asked, "Which of these two types of people have more wealth
(primitive or modern)?" For him, permaculture is not about privileging any one system—economic or
otherwise—but rather about striking a balance and making due.
Wealth and weeds
Notably, the conceptualization of wealth discussed in the permaculture course seemed to play into
nostalgia for socialist Bulgaria, even across the young group of course attendees. This was present when I
spoke with both Bulgarian and international participants: "These people [Bulgarians] don't realize how rich
they are," Richard, another English permaculture gardener living in Shipka, told me as I was struggling to
uproot a small fruit tree in his yard. Richard insists that communism would have worked if people "hadn't
become greedy", a trait which, he believes, is not inherently a part of human nature. He contrasts this with
permaculture, which he feels is "the only way."
As with similar rural subsistence projects, permaculture in postsocialist Europe serves "as a constant
reminder of the unfulfilled promises of modernity" (Hervieu-Leger 2000:77) to both visitors and locals,
which is perhaps made more striking by the presence of Western 'refugees.' It has been suggested that a
reconsideration of Engels's (1976) assertion that what is good for the working class is good for all of society
might guarantee food security and sovereignty for all, but not a luxury home and sports car for everyone
(Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 2000). This is not to say that permaculture endorses a brand of socialism (in
my experience, political allegiance can vary widely within such sites), but that it engages with a utopian
vision that opposes both communism and business-as-usual capitalism. For Richard, at least, permaculture
offers retreat from the neo-liberal capitalist agenda that he could "never really embrace" in England or the
Under the economic strains of crisis, those whose hopes rest upon capital, whose wealth and
livelihood relies on the global market, perceive economic collapse as the end of the world; those who practice
subsistence—though often associated with rurality, poverty, and backwardness—are more immune to these
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threats. Indeed, in Shipka and at other permaculture sites in CEE, subsistence gardeners have been largely
able to "ignore the economic crisis" (Aistara 2013:114). Ignoring economic crisis is facilitated in Shipka by
permaculture gardeners' reconceptualization of wealth and the agency to realize wealth in novel ways,
namely through valuing renewable resources in the landscape (permaculture principle 5, Holmgren 2002).
Permaculture and Intermediate land use systems may be used to localize what would otherwise be a
reliance on an increasingly expanding network, which becomes particularly relevant with the accession of
many CEE states to the European Union. In this case, the localization of livelihoods creates a space for
subversive strategies of subsistence. Feminist-Marxist scholars recognize this subversive potential in their
call for a subsistence perspective that emphases autonomy for societies who depend not on "money,
education, status, and prestige but on control over means of subsistence...(and) some independent money
income"; essentially, this includes "the capacity of communities to produce their life without being dependent
on outside forces and agents" (Bennholdt-Thompsen and Mies 2000:3-4). At the permaculture sites I visited
in CEE countries, this does not mean a return to collective farming but something that more closely
resembles 'private times' before communism, when informal, cooperative land management was still
prevalent, crop diversity higher, and farming less-dependent on mechanization (Cellarius 2004).
Vignette III: Permaculture epistemes: ethnoecology, experiment, and each other
I was flipping through the pages of Holmgren's (2002) well-known text when Richard told me he
respected the way I held a shovel but disproved of my relying on books; in fact, since his foray into
permaculture gardening he had become quite critical of the use of written, academic materials in
permaculture education, a sentiment that extended to his skepticism regarding my own endeavors as a
visiting anthropologist. He insisted that people truly learn permaculture only by doing, by observing. "You
plant something and watch it", he told me, "If it doesn't like it, the plant will tell you—by dying!—and then
you try again in a different location or with different soil or hydration."
When I asked Damyan how he perceived local gardeners' approaches to learning permaculture, he told
me that he thought many Bulgarian gardeners to be highly superstitious, only planting when their "mood is
right", and reading the weather for signs and symbols. According to Damyan, they expect that he is equally
attuned to these things and extremely spiritual in his approach because he is a permaculture teacher. He
explained that, while he loves to entertain these ideas, his "logic gets in the way." Damyan and John both
refer to permaculture publications and default to observational evidence as a guiding tool. To illustrate their
point, they gave an account of biodynamic gardeners, many of whom attend permaculture courses. They were
described as gardeners who follow astrological calendars and often practice sympathetic magic, such as the
ritual burial of specific minerals or animal remains, but none of which—according to John and Damyan—are
supported by empirical evidence. They, on the other hand, employ a certain skepticism in their agriculture
and conservation efforts. John, for example, learns permaculture primarily through literature and practice in
his gardens, where he designs and carries out controlled experiments to compare permaculture techniques
with other, conventional non-permaculture techniques. Documenting these comparative studies, he posts the
results on a website in English and Bulgarian so that this information is accessible to other gardeners. He
explained that testing permaculture methods for their efficiency and sustainability without bias against other
techniques is imperative, because taking any one system for granted as the only way—even permaculture
itself—is what "got us in this [environmental] mess in the first place."
Ways of knowing
The presence of multiple, simultaneous ways of knowing in Shipka is another display of
permaculture's social inclusivity. While Holmgren acknowledges that "permaculture was conceived within
academia" (2002:xxii), it has received negative reception; perhaps there is little appreciation for such a
holistic approach in an academy of specialists (Veteto and Lockyer 2008). Permaculture design principles are
rooted in ecology, horticulture, architecture, and other disciplines; however, the inclusion of the agent-
gardener, their considered observations (also a permaculture design essential), and measured responses and
interactions within their system are inherent to success. The blurring of 'expert' and 'lay' knowledges creates a
space for collaboration and inclusion.
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Richard's observing and interacting sentiment (permaculture principle 1, Holmgren 2002), and simply
'getting your hands dirty' echoed an emphasis on embodied learning and practice, the [re]honing of a
particular metis, in this case a localized set of skills, learned only through experience, sometimes lost to
modernity (Scott 1998). Such experiential knowledge is highly sought after, as exemplified by the turnout
during Bulgaria's first permaculture course held during my stay in the spring of 2011, as well as the
willingness of long-term volunteers who aim to learn by apprenticeship. David also interpreted this embodied
practice through creating art and observing and illustrating local flora and fauna, which he considered to be
"the best way to learn."
Meanwhile, Damyan's garden design course included ecological language and explanations of systems
thinking, including diagrams and flow charts to illustrate the in(put)s and out(put)s of chicken tractors (see
Figure 2). Further lectures on permaculture design included the replacement of chemical inputs (such as
pesticides and herbicides) with biological checks such as crop diversification (polyculture); and erosion and
evapotranspiration were countered through insulating layers of mulch (much like a forest floor); this way,
farm-to-table becomes table-to-farm. To apply these ideas, garden course groups constructed compost piles
using different ratios of materials, dug out vegetable beds, and planted a living fence of hedges, berries, and
other perennials in an activity that appealed to Richard's embodied approach. Participants also collected soils
in order to feel their texture, sang Bulgarian folk songs about forests together, created salads out of 'weeds'
and then tasted the results for lunch.
Another take-home lesson from Damyan's course was the inclination to "waste no more"
(permaculture principle 6, Holmgren 2002). This extended beyond the site's compost piles and worm bins to
the surrounding village, where we salvaged materials nearly every day from neighbors who were hoping to
get rid of wood scraps, grass/weed clippings, sawdust, or manure. On-site compost toilets provide fertilizer
(humanure) with the added bonus of "not defecating in your drinking water." Chicken tractors are used to
transform household organic waste into nitrogen-rich manure; creating a nutrient-dense, 'tilled' areas ready
for planting without chemical fertilizers, tilling, or weeding (and with fresh eggs for daily consumption).
These ideas were presented as a rational, conscious realignment with ecological processes but presented in
ways that appealed to a heterogenous group of gardeners, university students from Sofia, elder villagers,
young families and the like.
Like other permaculture principles, the aim to produce no waste is inspired by the recognition that nature has
no waste: a revelation that is equally ecological (all 'waste' is potential input, viewed from another
perspective) and social (waste, like weeds, is a constructed category that can be reconsidered and redefined—
or deleted altogether). That such a holistic, social-ecological approach would result in the inclusion of many
ways of knowing is not surprising; that they co-flourish is perhaps the key 'take-home' permaculture garden
course lesson. Recognizing this unusual space for collaboration in sustainable development is the foundation
for further discussion of permaculture as applied political ecology.
4. Discussion: operationalizing permaculture as applied political ecology
Permaculture is more than a social movement or venture in alternative agriculture; rather, the
inclusion of the social element in the ecological processes of food production lends permaculture its holistic
perspective and potential for longevity. Moreover, permaculture design is highly contingent upon the literal
and figurative lay of the land; by adapting to shifting social and political terrain it flourishes in its socially-
inclusive orientation. Further attention from applied environmental anthropologists might bolster such
projects beyond the scope of a social movement or as merely an 'alternative', and may evaluate seriously the
potential for permaculture as an oppositional framework (Allen et al. 2003). This opposition is characterized
by an approach to development that prioritizes social and ecological relationships simultaneously. My time in
CEE provided only a brief glimpse into the numerous possibilities for permaculture at the local level. The the
broader implications of the permaculture framework as both a gardening strategy and a reconceptualization
of eco-social relations should not be underestimated (Veteto and Lockyer 2008).
In the following sections I will discuss permaculture's intersections with theoretical and applied
social-ecological sciences and introduce possibilities for further incorporation of permaculture into research
where the objective is social and ecological justice. To illustrate these points I return to my framing of
permaculture as oppositional to nature/culture binaries through the embracing of social-ecological strategies.
Key to my approach is that permaculture design situates humans and social relationships as existing within
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social-ecological processes rather than outside of or residing over them, a reorientation that is inherently
oppositional to top-down development.
Figure 2: Garden Course Collage. Top left: The derelict cinema (kino) and City Hall serve as
reminders of what Georgi calls the "glory days" of Shipka; Top right: a neighbor walks his goat
home from the communal herd, or "goat school"; Center right: a local man shovels organic
'waste' just before being interrupted by permaculture gardeners hoping to repurpose it; Center
right: Damyan, John, and David harvest 'cow trash' for the gardens; Bottom left: Damyan
teaches about chicken inputs and outputs for the garden course; Bottom center: Creation of the
"Waste no More" worm bin; Bottom right: The permaculture garden course participants learn
the science and art of compost piles. Source: A. June Brawner (April-May 2011).
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Journal of Political Ecology Vol.22, 2015 439
Socio-ecological solutions for socio-ecological problems
The conscious inclusion of the human element in permaculture agronomy is a lived-out, subversive
critique of nature/culture dualisms (Lockyer and Veteto 2013). It has been said that the radical, if gradual,
shift from foraging to agriculture "must be understood... as a cognitive or symbolic transformation that
redefined human self-awareness" (Starr 2005:8). This awareness would have presumed the ability to
manipulate the land, select for the most efficient crops, and produce an unprecedented amount of food
annually. Perhaps we are at such a juncture today, as human consciousness—largely due to the conspicuous
nature of our own destruction and ensuing environmental crisis—must again be redefined in view of our
relationship to foodways. Permaculture is one answer to the agricultural post-productivist question; it
promotes environmental stewardship, decentralization and increased cooperation, utilization of polyculture,
and emphasizes the need for renewable resources (Suh 2014). If permaculture was "way ahead of its time"
for its incorporation of interdisciplinary knowledge sets and lay expertise (Veteto and Lockyer 2008), it is
equally innovative in its coupling of social and ecological systems; permanent culture and agriculture is not
only a nod to the social context of agricultural endeavors, but may be understood as a framework for
implementing sustainable social-ecological systems (SES).
An SES may be understood as a unit of functionally-linked biological, geological, and social
components; the system may also include institutions and actors on many scales simultaneously (Redman et
al. 2004). Before systems approaches to SES were codified and made popular in formal assessments of
ecosystem services and resilience (e.g. Meadows 2008, Walker and Salt 2006), permaculture gardeners were
observing interspecies dynamics (permaculture principle 1, Holmgren 2002), recording thresholds and
leverage points, and intervening in feedback loops between various social and ecological variables in the
everyday space of their own gardens (this last point speaks to several permaculture principles, notably
produce no waste and capture and store energy; permaculture principles 2 and 6, Holmgren 2002). What is
more, permaculture gardeners have factored in an ethical framework and agenda for social justice. I suggest
that a systematic approach, which includes both social and ecological drivers and impacts, is one reason
permaculture may be described as a 'revolution disguised as gardening' (Burnett 2008); in a time of coupled
social and ecological crisis, the implications for the realignment of the ecological and the social provided by
permaculture are profound.
That permaculture principles are realized in countless ways within an international movement speaks
to its adaptability and resilience across heterogenous geophysical, political, and social landscapes. Moreover,
permaculture remains largely outside the influence of large institutions and relies on participatory research
and popular support (Méndez et al. 2013), creating a space for collaboration across disciplines and
backgrounds. My experience in the Balkans highlighted this flexibility as agroecological transitions mirrored
political transitions. As outlined above, permaculture is an accessible SES framework; it is inherently
adaptive and prioritizes efficiency without sacrificing system resilience. For example, the utilization of
polyculture may require additional manual labor during harvests, but this is levied against the resilience of
mutually-beneficial relationships between a heterogeneous group of crops (disease resistance, companion
plants having differing nutritional requirements, etc.) In addition, the preference for perennial food crops,
which may yield less edible mass per season, is justified by the long-term benefits of reduced annual planting
labor and soil tillage (Kelsey 2014; Toensmeier 2007).
Permaculture principles have shown their inherent adaptability; moving forward, it is worth
questioning whether permaculture can and should be 'scaled-up.' Veteto and Lockyer (2008) note that
international agricultural and development centers have not utilized permaculture as an approach in any
significant way and suggest that this may be for the best, as current top-down approaches to development are
structurally, contextually, and epistemologically incongruent with the horizontal, inclusive network of
permaculture as an alternative. Others identify permaculture as inspiration for a "…paradigm shift in policy-
making from environmental managerialism to environmental stewardship" (Suh 2014:93), calling for
aggressive policy measures in support of permaculture and the recognition of positive gains (such as reduced
energy consumption and the repurposing of waste) within the context of larger economic structures, noting
that small-scale systems of food production are not necessarily efficient or environmentally benign.
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A space for opposition
Localizing subsistence economies may act as a subversive consolidation of agency in marginal
landscapes, but what are the broader implications beyond these individual sites? Following Allen et al.'s
(2003) use of alternative and oppositional, an applied political ecology may ask whether permaculture act as
an alternative by operating within existing structures and allowing a space for withdrawal, or can it be
oppositional in aiming to implement a new structural figuration? To some degree, each permaculture action
or site (from small farm to windowsill box) may function largely as an alternative. These sites operate via
withdrawal from larger markets and create a distinct, local space for food production and community while
manipulating existing structures (in the case of CEE, this includes the privatization of common land, EU
membership and associated residency allowances, disparity between the Euro and other currencies equating
to disproportionate buying power, etc.) and do not operate to amass capital in the traditional sense. However,
the core tenants of permaculture practice, in all their iterations, grant permaculture the potential to be
oppositional because it is fundamentally counter to the foundations on which the larger food-producing and
political systems are based, namely the exceptional status of humans.
Because permaculture is more than small-scale food production—it draws on socio-ecological
networks, simultaneous alternative epistemologies, and stewardship of place and community—new
relationships replace old hierarchies, entailing a rejection of hegemonic forces and narratives of power. This
emphasizes quietly subversive methods that operate as anti-foundational critiques of positivist epistemology,
notably 'high-modernist' agricultural science (Scott 1998) and Western cultural dominance. Permaculture can
be a performance of opposition, an acknowledgment of structural shortcomings, a suggestion of hope, and a
productive manifestation of subaltern ways of knowing. Real structural opposition through permaculture is
viewed as feasible by practitioners in Bulgaria, where environmental unrest and dissatisfaction in the 1980s
led to large-scale uprising and eventually to the fall of communist regimes (Paskaleva et al. 1998; Dawson
1996). Essential to permaculture's position as either alternative or oppositional is the collective-over-
individual approach championed by permaculture gardeners—this runs counter to dominant individualist
narratives (Suh 2014). This collective orientation may also find a well-suited application in the pursuit of
permaculture knowledge itself and it is a lesson to academic 'experts' and specialists. Reconceptualizing
permaculture knowledge as a collective endeavor, or as a commons, speaks to Veteto and Lockyer's (2008)
assertion that the holistic approach to permaculture is inherently incongruent with the highly-specialized and
exclusive nature of institutionalized knowledge production. I suggest that, while there is no room for the lone
specialist in permaculture practice or research, we might also "make the best of things" and follow
Hemenway's (2009) lead to reconfigure our expertise into guilds of complimentary epistemologies in an
effort to create a more inclusive—and equitable—foundation for permaculture study and engagement.
5. Regeneration and remembrance in-situ: redefining progress
Permaculture was defined by several informants as regenerative gardening; it is this potential for
resurgence that inspires many of its practitioners, who see that this process of "…regeneration is focused on
creating an ecologically driven local agrarian economy that primarily functions as a provisioning mechanism
of livelihood and food security, and instrumentally also empowers people through the creation of local self-
dependent communities" (Natarajan 2005:409). If permaculture—as several gardeners related to me—is the
singular "way", how had something universal become a project of the local? In my experience in Shipka (and
at similar sites in Slovenia and Serbia), emphasis on locality and traditional methods hinge on relationships—
within the community, within the garden, and with the past—as well as the inclusion of diverse simultaneous
Opposing the general motion of what many in CEE consider to be 'progress', the CEE iterations of
permaculture that I witnessed in Shipka, Opovo, and Škofljica hinge on the fact that, as many of my
informants insisted, it is nothing new. It draws from localized, indigenous, intergenerational knowledge and
makes use of natural, social, and regional assets; as Fox (2013:167) illustrates in her Romanian account,
"permaculture is not a static framework; it is alive and growing with the people who use it." Relating her
family's history in the small town of Shipka, Niki (a Bulgarian permaculture gardener) argued that towns like
Shipka "have always been ecovillages", by which she meant a sustainable, integrated garden-and-village in
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one7. She pointed out the streets lined with plum (Prunus domestica), cherry (Prunus avium, Prunus cerasus),
and apple trees (Malus x domestica), adjacent forest (which is frequently foraged for wild garlic, nettle, or
mushrooms), and the common spring-fed irrigation system. Her grandmother planted her vegetables with a
fork long before "no-till" agriculture was popular. That permaculture practices resemble traditional
agriculture, particularly in CEE countries, has also been noted in Latvia (Aistara 2013) and Romania (Fox
2013). But if permaculture is reminiscent of traditional Bulgarian gardening, then why do permaculture
gardens sometimes strike such a discordant note with some of the locals?
Today, older generations in Shipka are confronted with a post-socialist project that appears
"backwards" and "strange", if only because it seems retrograde. As Fox (2013:175) writes of the Romanian
case, the permaculture vision for a feasible and desirable transition
…runs explicitly counter to dominant ideas of 'wealth' and 'prestige' that were common in
Romanian visions of the future...In other words, their disappointment is possible only because
they believe in the golden age of modernity and improvement originating from the state that
they had partially witnessed in 1950s and 1960s socialism.
I suggest that this theme is particularly salient in Shipka, where several permaculture practitioners are
immigrants from the United Kingdom, even as media discourse portrays EU immigration patterns as
For many, maximizing this space 'in between' offers the possibility to redefine progress, implement
new livelihood strategies that marry traditional practices with contemporary understandings of socio-
ecological systems, and offer a lasting opposition. Permaculture at these CEE sites offers a counter to a
narrow, Western-centric notion of progress, creating oppositional frameworks for development. Because of
permaculture's social-ecological orientation, growth is judged not by quantity but by quality and in terms of
relationships between rather than on fetishized things. Permaculture exists as a highly flexible framework for
reform in which the structural failings of the current agro-food system are made manifest in a multitude of
subjective, highly individualized ways. During my time on permaculture farms in three CEE towns, no
singular permaculture narrative or motivation emerged other than a general trope: dissatisfaction—with
environmental management, society, and economy. Only a critical, applied political ecology of CEE
transitions elucidates these dissatisfactions and possible alternatives, as permaculture's potential for
revolutionary change lies not in its continuity across sites but in its social and ecological adaptability within
them. Through capitalism, nature is "…robbed of its natural character and becomes a factor in production
calculations, while the market is ascribed a natural character as if its mechanism were beyond human
influence" (Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies 2000:113). An applied political ecology foregrounds this paradigm:
the current economic system is socially constructed and maintained; economies are reified through practice,
and appear oftentimes to be beyond the scope of human intervention and reconfiguration. For the
permaculture gardeners I met at CEE sites in Shipka, Škofljica, and Opovo, permaculture is more than an
alternative to resource-intensive industrial agriculture; it provides an intermediate or 'in between' space for
alternative livelihoods, ideas and beliefs. It privileges traditional and alternative ways of knowing while
maintaining a scientific skepticism. As such, permaculture also provides fertile ground for applied political
ecologists to engage in meaningful participatory research that contributes to positive social and ecological
change (e.g. Veteto and Lockyer 2008). While permaculture may not be a fix-all approach for the current
environmental crisis, its reconsideration of socio-natural binaries and social inclusivity is a worthwhile
endeavor. These possibilities represent a space for opposition and alternative trajectories of sustainable
development through reform and resistance in the context of everyday life as—in a land where utopian
ventures are not unfamiliar—permaculture has found fertile soil in unexpected ways. Yes, these may be small
and slow solutions, but for those who creatively use and respond to change, they are making all the difference
(permaculture principles 9 and 12; Holmgren 2002). As a growing number of case studies illustrate (see
Lockyer and Veteto 2013), the potential of permaculture in applied political ecology is not in any unified
7 Niki's use of this term represents one of many interpretations of what an ecovillage is (e.g. Lockyer and Veteto 2012).
For a discussion of definitions, developments, and recent trends, see Dawson (2013).
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