Yes to Permaculture! The Vladislav Davidzon Interview, Founder and CEO of Common Circle Education. By Willi Paul, Magazine
Yes to Permaculture! The Vladislav Davidzon Interview, Founder and CEO of Common Circle Education. By Willi Paul, Magazine

"One word: innovation. I think the changes we're going to see in the next decade are going to be absolutely incredible. I think the things we're going to see are going to be stunning - and no, peak oil collapse isn't on my radar at all, as I think we're witnessing a massive transformation towards a more robust, much faster-growing (!) and fully regenerative economy. There is a fantastic book out there by Storm Cunningham called The Restoration Economy that tackles some of the economic questions in a really interesting way. I do not have a magic eight-ball, but the writing is on the wall. The world's href= target="blank">largest company has made a public commitment to going zero waste, 100% renewable energy powered, and to sell sustainable products. They are also one of the few players who is capable of responding to the challenges they (and the planet) face on the scale of the challenges themselves.

Wal-Mart isn't going to do it because they want to be nice. They are going to do it because efficiency is of course ridiculously profitable; and inevitably when one starts looking at efficiency closely enough, we recognize that regeneration is actually far more profitable than efficiency - that is the design of products that create value at the end of their lifecycle, rather than a cost. That kind of design is the point where profitability can go through the roof, if done right. Regenerative sustainability is going to be wildly profitable, and the economy is going to shift accordingly. We're only starting to see the very first drops of that with renewable energy and organics exploding like crazy; and they're just the very beginning of the dramatic, amazing change that's going to happen. As a friend of mine once put it, it's not the change, but the acceleration of the speed of change, that is the most inspiring thing about this time."

-- Vladislav Davidzon, writing in the permaculture international listserv

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Interview with Vladislav by Willi

If a student in your course raised her hand and wanted to explore how "The Nature Spirit" supports permaculture - what would do?

I come from a tradition that deeply values full spectrum dialogue and intellectual inquiry; while recognizing that at the end of the day it is action, and action alone, that matters. It sounds like this type of an open-ended question would certainly create a very fruitful and valuable discussion.

One of our core operational principles at Common Circle Education is that we do not come together to agree, but rather we come together to have dialogue and to hear a variety of perspectives, for the sake of figuring out the most proper action for each of us to take. Diversity of tactics is certainly the other implied principle within that.

I see no justifiable reason to avoid difficult conversations, and in fact believe that the most essential skill we can give our participants is the process of facilitating those difficult conversations. Fundamental honesty is the most essential skill we can give people. It is there that everything begins.

Are we headed to City Councils and State Houses as permaculturists? Can we choose to avoid the political fights ahead?

Permaculture is going to become irrelevant as its principles become omnipresent in every decision that human beings make, through a greater awareness of nature connection and truly intelligent design. I don't know that we need to "fight" as much as we simply need to adapt and merge with the many streams of mainstream. If there are fights to be had, it's the healing within each one of us, rather than with some external forces; and perhaps also in establishing new boundaries of acceptable range for a new regenerative culture to emerge.

I believe that the discussion about boundaries is a critical one, as boundaries define and enable functional social structures. Permaculture is unique in establishing some boundaries, but the applications remain very much unclear, or at least very much up for strange and often ironic debate - for example, the recent discussions about whether to tolerate diversity within the permaculture movement itself struck me as a tad awkward, but I think the irony was very much lost there. I think the real work ahead of us is in defining some of those boundaries.

The big question that remains unanswered is: what is permaculture and what makes one a permaculturist? Many permaculturists say permaculture is about gardening and homesteading, but that's a lot like saying math is about building bridges. Our ability to define extraordinarily broad boundaries on the very edges of our ethics and principles is what's going to enable permaculture to truly become the dominant canopy. Ultimately the debate in some ways is irrelevant because the permaculture community itself, long-term, is irrelevant - it will disappear as the principles become more omnipresent in our society. I cannot wait for the day to come when the depth and richness of the dialogue begins to encompass the full human spectrum, which is undeniably much larger than the small group of pioneer species that have each given so much to nurture this work. It is thus with tremendous gratitude towards the sacrifices made that we must work to enable the very full expression of this great work.

How do you feel about the "melting ice bergs and burning Midwestern crops" associated with Global Warming?

I don't find those facts to be particularly relevant or useful to my day-to-day actions. I didn't commit my life to this beautiful and crazy work for the sake of preventing some petty crisis, no matter how major it might appear at the present moment. The real question isn't what's the next crisis we should be preventing, or even how small our carbon footprint should be. In other words, if the best answer we can come up with is 'minimize your carbon footprint', I think we're asking some radically flawed questions. The question isn't how little negative impact can we make on the planet, but how large of a positive impact do we have a responsibility to make?

What we should be asking is how amazing can our lives be and how incredible can we make our world? When human beings thrive, the planet will thrive with us. It's not about the planet. It's about each and every one of us leading the most amazing, beautiful, creative, fulfilling, regenerative lives we possibly can - because when we do that, the planet will thrive with us.

I think a lot boils down to leadership and vision. I also find that real understanding of leadership is badly lacking in the permaculture community. There is a lot of irrelevant strife for control and authority, that seems to come from confusion of authority with power; and power isn't something we need to "take" because we are fundamentally power. What we do need to do is to take our responsibilities that we've given up for so long, for fear of being responsible for the outcomes of our lives. There is a lot of healing to be done, certainly.

Access to land is a big challenge. Ask the WholeFoods folks and the Occupy the Farm group in Albany, CA. How does permaculture increase its "socio - political acreage"?

I think the whole Occupy the Farm fiasco was an absurdity of the highest order that disregarded the will of the larger community and a huge misstep by the movement. The problem certainly lies in the (admittedly rather evil) processes by which consent is manufactured in our society, but that doesn't give a small group of people the moral or legal right to disregard that consent - and when they choose to do so, the force of the law will be rightly used to reclaim that which isn't theirs to take and to restore order. In other words, I fully believe that the overwhelming majority of the community members want to see another Whole Foods arrive in the community, and also for many other reasons the occupation was a huge blunder for the whole movement. While I can write papers on the matter, I think you pose a more important, larger question about access to land.

Fundamentally the problem of access to land lies in the concept of ownership of land, and it is very much a legislative problem that must be corrected. I believe that private property isn't a bad concept by any means, and in fact the right to private property should certainly indeed be protected by the law. However the idea that we can own the air, the water, the land... the whole notion is absolutely absurd and in fact morally bankrupt when the full impact is considered. In other words, allowing private property to include certain elements that belong to all of us, without good reason for doing so in exceptional circumstances, is a fundamental legislative problem that must be corrected. The movement towards recognizing the rights of nature is likely the first step towards such legislative change.

Pragmatically speaking, shorter-term there is also a question of zoning of the land. It's shocking to me that virtually everyone knows that George W. Obama is the current President of the United States; and many people know who their representatives in Congress are; some may even know who their Mayor is. Ask how many people know who represents them on their local zoning boards, and virtually no one ever knows. Yet the authority to make decisions is exactly in reverse - zoning has the power to shape the most critical parts of our lives day-to-day. It's an interesting inconsistency that likely needs more attention by folks seeking to make major achievements towards greater access to land, especially in urban and suburban contexts.

What is a permaculture-based alternative to the NY Stock Exchange and financial system?

Remember that the problem is the solution.

Major corrections must be made to the laws that define the boundaries by which the financial system operates, in order to alleviate the current systemic design problems which many rightly argue are destroying our planet. Proper and complete cost accounting of ecological services would be ridiculously good start. I do not perceive that the problem is as much the financial system itself, as much as the rules (or lack thereof) that govern the boundaries by which that system operates. In this case, the rules very much define the system, and part of the larger challenge is the corruption of the political process by the very entities that the rules seek to manage.

It's much easier to attack what we don't want, and much harder to build what we actually do want. The first step is to create a more democratic political process by setting boundaries on the effect of money on our political process, and we would certainly do well by looking at other countries that have less corrupt political processes.

What are your top three messages from permaculture for young children? For their teachers?

Mostly to the teachers about natural patterns of learning and success in life:

1. Stay the hell out of the way of the kids - they know a lot more than you do. Do no harm first - and your profession is one of the most profoundly harmful in the world.

2. Let them play with nature - yes, that means they will sometimes get hurt. Yes, your insurance can handle it, and perhaps you should be paying higher premiums to enable the risk.

3. Teach the kids that failure is absolutely essential to success. Don't discourage failure, because you're discouraging future innovation that's essential to the very survival of human beings.

Do you see any paradigm-shifts in the permaculture movement these days - or are we basically stuck in a permi-box?

I largely don't operate within the permi-box, so it's an interesting question to consider. I honestly think that our company is actually driving one of the largest paradigm shifts in suggesting extensive collaboration with the mainstream.
The PC community has largely been extraordinarily insular and doesn't intersect in any meaningful way with the mainstream society. We're working very hard to change that dysfunctional pattern. Given how much energy, time and my own money I've committed towards this work, it should be obvious that I believe this to be the single most important challenge.

I also think we're a very small fish compared to what's yet to come when the likes of Wal-Mart come to adopt the permaculture principles. It's going to happen, it's only a matter of time - and I certainly want to see such change happen sooner rather than later.

What is your understanding of the role(s) and political power base of Australia's PRI?

You appear to be confusing power and authority. Geoff Lawton and PRI are working in their power in doing some truly incredible work in advancing permaculture, but they hardly have any more authority than anyone else in what is a highly decentralized movement. I am a student of Geoff's and consider him to be one of the top three greatest permaculturists and educators in this movement, and for the record fully and completely support his work, even if I may at times also disagree with some of his positions.

I really have a huge problem with the incessant attacks present in this movement. Although ironic, it is also deeply sad that there is such a ridiculously low level of tolerance towards diversity in a community of diversity educators. While I very much understand that they are rooted in the need of deep personal healing, the attacks are regardless profoundly unproductive.

I have made it extremely clear that I will not hesitate to use all means at my disposal (including legal force) to put an end to these unproductive behaviors as I believe them to be the single largest threat that permaculture faces today. Again, this comes down to a basic understanding of boundaries - and I think it's long past time to clearly establish limits to the range of acceptable dialogue; if the attacks can even be considered 'dialogue' - I am certainly tempted to place them into a different category closer to the box labeled "violence"; and protective use of force may well be necessary at times to maintain those boundaries.

Do you have any ideas on how we are going to transform the oil industry-dominated industrial & urban landscape to a "permaculture oasis"?

Yeah, we need to learn a thing or two from nature... about collaboration. Permaculture is one of the most radically insular communities that I've ever witnessed, with a tremendous level of ideology and judgments that prevent effective collaboration. We have to begin to heal some of those patterns if we're going to have any chance of healing the larger landscape.

What are the pros and cons of supporting competition in permaculture? Is this our Achilles Heel?

Having now spent a number of years on the "inside" of the permaculture education community, I am endlessly amused and deeply saddened by the approach that many permaculturists often take towards competition. Everyone talks about collaboration, yet a number of people use extremely dirty tricks in aggressively competing for what is perceived as a relatively limited pool of students. In other words, teaching abundance while designing for scarcity, and acting out of scarcity.

I think it's time to shine some bright light on those dysfunctional behaviors. I won't go into a lot of detail into the precise behaviors that I've seen beyond saying that it's truly been the full range I'd expect from someone peddling shoes or other goods. I am not really all that interested in attaching judgments towards those patterns as I am in naming them as being profoundly dysfunctional and harmful to our larger goals.

Honest and transparent competition is a great thing for the permaculture community on every level. The word "competition" comes from the Latin word "competeri" which roughly translates to "strive together"; to get fit together. The Williams sisters train together, they get fit together, one goes on to win Wimbledon. I fully believe that competition is a healthy and vitally required element of a healthy ecosystem, but it must be honest and it must be transparent if such competition will be functional.

Running a fairly large-scale operation, we obviously collaborate with our teaching team, our partners, and suppliers. Yet, we also compete with many of the same people. When done with enough transparency and honesty, that competition-collaboration balance is profoundly healthy for everyone involved.

Yes to collaboration; yes to cooperation; yes to competition. Yes to honesty and integrity to enable all of those.

Green technology, while possibly cost-effective, often breaks or runs out of juice. Your thoughts?

I do not believe the biggest challenge to us is technical, but rather social. If we can figure out the people challenges, the technical challenges will get solved quickly.

Having said that, I also tend to be extremely visionary (perhaps optimistic) in this realm. My truth is that we have absolutely no idea of our potential when we begin to truly invest in research and development (R&D), and there are some amazing breakthroughs coming from the private sector these days. I believe commercial enterprise got us into this mess, and commercial enterprise can and will get us out.

I should state that I fully and completely disagree with the "peak oil collapse" paradigm under which most permaculturists seem to operate. Peak oil is a fact, although the timeline is questionable and it is likely we're going to cause global climate change challenges much quicker than we run out of oil.

However I find truly absurd the idea that people who today (for good or bad reasons) control the majority of the wealth are just going to sit on their bums and watch their wealth evaporate under them. That's just not how markets work. Money is going to shift dramatically towards green technologies - in fact they are shifting that way today. Let us not forget, for example, that Solyndra failed because the price of solar panels went through the floor and they could no longer compete. There are massive shifts today in investment patterns that are becoming obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.

The challenge of course is delayed feedback loops. If a polar bear dropped dead in front of your car every time you turned the engine on, you would quickly purchase a bicycle or get a better pair of shoes. The big (and frankly only) question to me is whether the feedback is going to be rapid enough to generate the changes we need to see happen in the time frame that we need to see them happen. I concede that to assume that the feedback will be strong enough in time to enable the changes to still happen, may well be overly optimistic.

Which again brings up the point I made earlier - the reason to do this work isn't to avoid some future collapse or catastrophe, but rather to create the beautiful, thriving, amazing lives for ourselves here and now. I truly believe that when human beings thrive, the planet will thrive with us. I also believe in human beings; the odds have always been stacked against us throughout history, and we've overcome them every single time. Who is to say this time is somehow going to be different? It might, but history suggests otherwise.

Talk about Transition values. Do they mesh with permaculture's principles?

I believe the roadmaps laid out by TransitionUS are a complete non-starter in this country. You are going to get absolutely nowhere if you're refusing to collaborate and cooperate with commercial enterprises. Equally non-starter is the basic assumptions present in the "collapse" peak oil vision that's supposed to force the "transition" along.

I wish TransitionUS the best of luck, and I really doubt it's going anywhere, any time soon, unless they begin to more carefully examine both their fundamental assumptions and their ideologies.

Can we work "whole systems design" with a failing global ecosystem?

I am not really sure what other kind of design we could possibly be doing since just because the systems are being stressed doesn't make them systems any less.

The problems are still systemic, as are the solutions.

I would also point out that none of us really understand whether we're seeing a death or a birth - or more likely, both. Death is after all a natural process, and compost is a requirement towards building healthy soil. I think all the evidence really points to an emergence of something truly incredible - and again, I point out that it all starts with each one of us creating the beautiful, amazing, thriving, incredible lives here and now. Not for the sake of some future that may or may not happen, but because we can be healthy and happy here and now -- and here and now is ALL that we have.

In my work with the new global mythology, I frame the stories through a "Post-Transition Era" lens. How do you develop symbols, songs or new myths from your consulting in permaculture?

Now you're starting to truly talk about the roots of the challenges we face. Every single challenge goes back to the dysfunctional stories we have been told about ourselves and what it means to be human. There is a lot of mucking up that the Church through the Inquisition (and a number of other entities), have rather intentionally done to the human story over the last centuries. Very critically examining those stories enables us to both reconnect with our true nature and to create a new vibrant story and reality.

The creation of a certain kind of slave culture through the severance from our ancestral stories (and thus our true power) has been the goal of some of these entities for hundreds of years. In the process, human beings faced a rather unhappy choice - either we begin to love these entities, that are seeking to literally own and control us (namely in some cases the Church) or we got killed. Love and fear and possession became one at that point, and we haven't been able to sort it out since. Its stories like that which we must begin to untangle, examine and to create a new, healthier, more functional story, and in turn, reality. We create our perceptional reality, after all - and the one we've got right now ain't working so well for us. John Trudell has done an extraordinary amount of work in examining some of these stories, and I strongly suggest looking him up on iTunes, as his work is truly transformational.

I also think it's important to point out that in many ways, permaculture was not created by Bill Mollison, but rather has been the way that human beings have lived with the earth and with each other for many centuries. It's not that we need to create new stories as much as to reclaim the stories that have been with us since the beginning of time itself. The biggest and most important work of our lives is the reclaiming of those stories - that is the reclaiming of our connection to what it truly means to be human and alive.

"PermOccupy?" Your reaction please?

Like a significant portion of Americans, I'm largely allergic to the Occupy movement, for all the many reasons that so many people have eloquently laid out in too many other articles. I agree with much of the message, and yet I do not believe it's going to go anywhere, at least not anytime soon. It's easy to protest the things we don't want, and much harder to create the world we want. That's where permaculture comes in, right?

Thank you for this incredible opportunity, it really met my need for gaining clarity in my own thinking. The questions you sent were definitely not at all what I was expecting, and I am deeply grateful for the focus you gave me.

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Vladislav's Bio -

Personal mission statement: A catalyst for social change by living responsibly with the earth and building meaningful interdependent relationships. I thrive to live my life fully, focusing on the goal that when I reach the end of my life's journey, I will look back and honestly say that I have done everything I could to leave the planet a better place than I inherited it. I utilize a trial and error approach to activism and social change, risking to look where others fail to look for ways to make our society a better place.

From the front lines of one of the most misunderstood conflicts in modern history, to the corporate boardrooms of the social change companies I've set up, to the intentional communities all over the world, my path has taken me to the very edges of our society in search of solutions through better understanding of our world. I've witnessed more than my fair share of horrific war crimes, and plenty of inefficient organizations working to change the world by trying the same thing over and over again - utilizing the very methods that make formal the definition of insanity.

I believe it is far more powerful to create than to protest. Proudly standing up and showing new paths and creating new social structures is far more powerful than yelling loudly that the way of others is wrong. My present focus lies primarily around building unique companies that aim to create social change. Not only can small-scale economic development can be a tremendous tool for social change, but I also believe that business has a key role to play in resolving our planet's most pressing problems. Over the years, I have been involved in launching and managing many now well-known social change brands.

Connections -

Vladislav Davidzon, Founder and CEO
Common Circle Education
vladislav.davidzon at