Social Justice and Decolonization

“The permaculture movement must find ways to become an accessible and participatory movement with a strong following in diverse, urban neighbourhoods. The emphasis on land ownership and entrepreneurship must be replaced with collective action and creation of anti/beyond/despite-capitalist commons.” --Rebecca Ellis

What You Will Do

  • Identify your own privileges and biases.
  • Include different perspectives in your observations, and articulate ways to avoid “othering.”
  • Design with inclusion, accessibility, justice and decolonisation in mind.
Some public access strawberries in a hyper-gentrified neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, which rests on traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes. The current population of Portland is less than 1% Native.

As whole-systems designers, striving for social justice is our ethical imperative.

This section by Marit Parker

In this module, we will be considering some practical and personal implications of taking our ethics seriously in our design work, and giving them equal consideration alongside Earth Care. Through stories and activities we can look at things from different perspectives, and perhaps see ourselves from different perspectives too. By determining how and where we are in a more privileged position than some, we can help to ensure that our dreams, our good intentions and our designs don’t result in negative consequences or injustice for others.

​Here’s an introduction to the links between environmental issues and social issues, and the corresponding inter-relatedness of the three ethics.

Video 1: Introduction

Pause for a moment and reflect on what brought you to this work, and why you decided to join this course.

Many people come find their way to this course because they want to learn more about gardening and about growing food. The Earth Care ethic resonates easily with many of us, and applying an ecological approach can be really helpful in the garden. In this course, however, you have already seen that becoming an ecological designer means much more than that and in fact is applicable anywhere and everywhere.

I believe that all three ethics are equally important and inextricably interlinked. This means that if you want to address environmental issues, you need to look at the social issues involved, and you will need to understand the connections between them.

Some of you may be asking “Why?” Surely saving polar bears/stopping climate change/growing our own food is about saving the earth? Why do people matter when it’s people that have made a mess of the world?

As you will have heard by now, there are various ways of wording the third ethic. Some talk about population control, while others prefer to talk about sharing the surplus. 

Personally, I struggle with both these phrases. Apart from those who make a conscious choice not to have children, calls for population control are usually directed at other people and are often colour-coded, classist and ableist, with the main focus usually the Global South. 

Sharing surplus courgettes and tomatoes is easy when there is a glut, but when there are shortages or when there are conflicting interests, it is often people who are seen as surplus to requirements. Who loses out? Who gets what they want?  

Because some people get what they want while others lose out, it’s clear that sharing fairly across society is uncommon. Using the wording “striving for equality” may make more sense.

Where each one of us lives, sometimes just having somewhere to live, is related to this. What social group you belong to can have a big impact on where you can live.

“Fair share” means something different to these kids at a refugee camp .

Ask yourself, what personal and social factors impact where you live?

Make a quick list and consider each item for a moment. Then, think for a moment about a place in your area that either causes environmental problems, or was caused by environmental problems.

Who lives next to it? Do you?  

The consequences of living there are probably reflected in local health statistics and mortality figures. For example, in South Wales the life expectancy of people living in former mining towns, where most of the mines have been closed for twenty to thirty years, is still twenty years less than the life expectancy of people in rural market towns less than 10 miles away.

The people living near your local environmental problem are unlikely to be responsible for the siting or building of it, but they are the ones paying a high price for the pollution.

Very often, those living next door to a source of pollution have little choice about where to live. Where else could they live? What options are open to them?

This interconnection between housing and health and social position highlights how environmental issues and social issues are inextricably bound up together. If we take our ecological ethics seriously, then social justice has to be part of design thinking. Avoiding social issues means we are guilty of perpetuating inequalities and aren’t really seeing, or observing, the full picture.

​Affordable housing as a design challenge

In this section we look closely at one social issue and see if using a designer’s mind helps us to understand why it’s an issue and also if it can help us find possible ways forward. I’ve chosen the housing crisis because we all need somewhere to live.

In “alternative” circles, when people talk about housing they are usually talking about building their own home from natural materials. (Put the words “house” and “permaculture” into an online search engine, and you’ll see what I mean). This is a fine dream to aim towards, but it doesn’t reflect reality for most people. Observation is about looking at and noticing what things are like right now, not how we wish they were. In the next video we are going to look at the housing crisis and see if applying ecological principles can help bring about change.

​Tackling discrimination and prejudice

​After a brief introduction to inequality and discrimination, let’s look at why prejudice is an issue and consider advantages and disadvantages we face, and consider our own positions in terms of privilege and power.

When you hear the words discrimination and prejudice, what comes to mind?

Take a moment to reflect on personal experiences of discrimination or prejudice. What comes up for you?

Discriminative and prejudiced practices are fairly obvious when we look at, for example, the corporate world, especially in hiring policies. The terms glass ceiling and gender pay gap will probably be familiar to you. If you have a name that sounds Asian or African, even if you have an excellent education and work history, research in both Canada and in Britain shows it’s much harder to get an interview.

We can see this in Hollywood too. The Bechdel-Wallace Test is a test which many films fail even though it consists of just three questions:

  • ​Does a film have at least two named female characters?
  • Do those characters have at least one conversation with each other?
  • A conversation that is not about a man?

This test has recently been updated to include colour and also to look behind the camera. But it could still go further. We think it’s laughable now that in Shakespeare’s time women weren’t allowed to be actors, but don’t blink an eye when an able-bodied actor is chosen to play a character with a disability. Comedian, actress and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid makes the shocking statement that “People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and the most underrepresented in entertainment.”

I don’t want to talk too much about disability because I think it’s much better and very important to learn directly from people with disabilities, which is what you will be doing in your hands-on assignment. This is in line with the motto of many disability rights organisations, “Nothing about us without us”. But one thing it would be worth familiarising yourself with is the difference between the medical and social models of disability.

The medical model sees a person with a disability in terms of their diagnosis and treatment. If they are limited in what they can do, that’s due to their condition.

The social model, on the other hand, says that society disables people by placing barriers in their way. Remove the barriers, and the world becomes more accessible and more inclusive. As ecological designers we can learn how to support people with different abilities by incorporating Universal Design approaches into our projects. This complementary design movement works to ensure that environments are designed so that they are accessible, understandable and usable for all people, regardless of their physical and mental abilities, age or size.

Being aware of discrimination is the first step towards tackling prejudice.

The next thing is being able to see where we have advantages over others, and where we are at a disadvantage. This is often called being aware of our own privilege.

We often think of privilege in terms of background or upbringing and education. In Britain, the majority of people in powerful positions, such as government ministers and CEOs, have come from wealthy families and have attended prestigious universities. With privilege comes power.

In the next video, we take a look at our own privileges and our own disadvantages. Because privileges put us at an advantage, they can give us a boost which may increase our opportunities. This can be seen as a form of power. We can choose to use this power to further ourselves or we can share our advantages and privilege with others.

A common and understandable reaction to suggestions to share our achievements is that we’ve worked hard to get where we are and we deserve it. The thing is, other people may also have worked just as hard, but because they have come up against prejudice and discrimination, their hard work hasn’t brought the same results. It’s not a level playing field.

​In the video, when I’m trying to stand on the skate ramp (yeah, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…) think of privilege as giving you spiderman suckers to grip onto and climb the slippery slope. (I wish I’d had some with me that day!)

“Sometimes speaking your truth can be uncomfortable. It’s hard work — like farming, building a house, etc. If we’re always attached to being comfortable, we aren’t likely to make much progress in the way of social justice.” –-Heather Jo Flores

Power and Privilege

In the video, I talked about using nonviolent communication when calling out/in words and actions that are prejudiced. But don’t forget that it can take an enormous amount of courage to speak up. For example, I got flustered when making the video above, because I was worried about offending the person filming me.

If you are on the receiving end of a feisty or fiery response to prejudice, or a public reaction to your words or actions, remember that this is far better than silence. Fear of upsetting people, or of having to cope with angry or violent reactions means the usual response is to swallow the prejudice and cope with it, again, and again.

​If you are experiencing prejudice or violence, making sure you are safe is the first priority. Having the support of others if/when you speak out can help ensure your safety. The impact of intersectionality is that people experiencing multiple prejudices don’t fit into projects aimed at those experiencing one particular type of prejudice, so consider:

  • If your project is aimed at women, is that by default mostly/all white women? 
  • Does it actively include women who are black, have disabilities, are refugees, are elderly etc?
  • If your project is aimed at a particular ethnic group, is that by default mostly/all able-bodied men or does it include women? 
  • Does it actively include women with learning disabilities?
  • What about women who are neurodivergent?
  • And so on.
Image from here

​Environmental and social justice

​In this section, we take a closer look at environmental issues in terms of social justice and equality, and also in terms of colonial attitudes and colonisation.

At the Paris climate talks, a major part of the discussion was where to set the limit. Initially the plan was to limit the global rise in temperature to 2 degrees. This was eventually reduced to 1.5 degrees.​

But even this leaves many people vulnerable. And the plan assumes that the wealthiest, most impactful people will make sacrifices to help the billions of poor people who suffer from those impacts. It’s a dubious plan, at best.

Indigenous campaigners and groups like the UK’s Wretched of the Earth point out that those most impacted by climate change are black and brown communities in the global South, with women often experiencing worse impacts than men.

Yet it is the industrialisation of the West that is largely responsible for altering and damaging the planet-wide systems.

This disparity between which countries and whose lifestyles are changing the climate, and who is suffering as a consequence, has brought discussion not just about climate justice but also about colonisation to the fore.

This is a big thing to take in and it can feel overwhelming.

So let’s start with something smaller, with the story of a little village, tucked away in the hills of North Wales.

In the further reading I’ve included links to photos of Capel Celyn before the dam.

I chose to tell the story of Tryweryn because it’s new to most people, so it’s neither jaded nor loaded, so hopefully it provides an opportunity to look afresh at some of the issues it raises.

The presumption that resources are there for the taking, regardless of the impact this will have on the area and on everyone and everything living there, is a common story around the world. 

​Where does this sense of entitlement, this presumption that resources are there for the taking, come from? What do you think?

Grandmothers at Standing Rock, protesting the theft and pollution of their tribal water source.

​What is colonisation?

“While the times have changed, the patterns of colonisation stay the same, based on violence, destruction of people’s freedoms and economies, taking what is not yours, collecting unjust rents on what is not yours.” –Vandana Shiva

Heather Jo Flores defines colonisation as:

“Having something that was your birthright taken without your consent, for the ongoing use and profit of others.”

Both these quotes talk about things being taken or lost. What sort of things have been taken? Can you think of any examples?

I bet “land” was at the top of your list. 

little-known example is the eviction and deportation by the British government of the Chagos Islanders, who lived simply and happily on what they grew and what they caught from the sea, to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

The political spin of colonisation is usually that the colonised people aren’t people of importance; they aren’t looking after the land properly, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re wasting the resources.

Taking land, resources, and knowledge.

Watch the first few minutes of this film, shot in the 1940s. Many countries were still under British rule but independence movements were gaining momentum. Just watch the introduction, there’s no need to watch the whole film.

Reflect for a moment on the tone of the commentary. Note the narrator’s attitude.

  • Whose knowledge is valued? 
  • Whose is dismissed?
  • Why was this film made?

It’s uncomfortable watching this. Do you feel relieved to think that a film like this would not be made now? We don’t talk about people in different countries being ignorant or about white men being responsible for them.

Or do we? 

  • How do feel about the term “developing countries”?
  • And our belief that the answer to their problems is education? Doesn’t that imply ignorance?
  • Who talks about “bringing democracy and freedom” and to whom?
  • What stereotypes do celebrity and “gap year” volunteers perpetuate?
  • How do historic injustices impact land ownership?  
  • What’s the pattern of land ownership where you live, and how does it impact the whole system?

Sometimes one country will take over another country without moving there, because there is something in the land that they want, such as oil. The film clip above would have been shown in cinemas alongside news reels and films.

Think about oil (getting it and using it). Reflect for a moment on assumptions we absorb from the news, the film industry, advertising.

The hunt for new medicines by the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in seeds for particular varieties of agricultural crops, the results of years and years of careful selection by farmers, being patented by the Biotechnology industry.

traditional healing practices have been appropriated, stolen, and commodified

Obliterating the society, culture and language.

A determination to make the language, the culture and the civic structures disappear seems to be a common feature of colonisation. Examples:

  • Children are punished in schools for speaking their mother tongue.
  • Local laws and traditions are not recognised.
  • Access to colonial law courts and commercial markets is via the colonial language.

An American report reveals Native Americans are vulnerable to systemic racism, whether they are reporting a crime or are accused of committing an offense.

Imagine losing your language, your culture, your place in society. What effects would it have (or has it had) on you?

Colonised people describe losing their sense of identity and their ability to thrive in their land, highlighting the crucial link between environmental sustainability and social sustainability, including linguistic and cultural sustainability.

Older languages are often rooted in the landscape and hold within them a wealth of knowledge about how to thrive in the area. Losing a language means losing this knowledge and this way of seeing the world. This, in turn, affects our ability to understand our locality and our place within it, and therefore our ability to live sustainably in our habitat.

Dehumanising people.

People’s bodies can also be the focus for colonial attitudes. Slavery and trafficking are obvious, terrible examples.

Some less well known examples:

These Indigenous Amazonian dancers perform for tourists to try and earn money for their impending relocation, meanwhile their homes are being destroyed by industrial growth.

Power and Privilege.

These are but a handful of examples in a world gone mad. In essence, colonisation is about power and privilege. It is also about arrogant disregard for those who ‘don’t matter’. It often involves erasing voices, cultures and languages. Sometimes this is done by making certain people or their culture, religion or language illegal, sometimes it is done violently.

Consider the current narratives about terrorism and gun violence.

What labels are used and who gets which label?

​Where is the power and the privilege in these narratives?

​Decolonization and ecological design

​In this section, we take a critical look at our work, in the light of our discussion of colonial attitudes. We also ask some awkward questions about what this means for our own work, projects, designs and lives.

As we have established, the ethics, principles, and techniques that we teach in this course did not come out of nowhere.

As people who use their knowledge, we have a debt to pay to the traditional and Indigenous peoples whose learnings and techniques we use and describe as “permaculture” and “ecological design.”

This debt can be acknowledged by giving credit where credit is due, but it cannot be repaid with words alone. We must embrace the ethics of the cultures whose traditions we honor, and work side-by-side with their descendants, as they continue to struggle against colonization.

Another problem with not acknowledging the origins of these techniques is that most of them were taken from specific geographical locations or climates, and how well they succeed has everything to do with a ton of site-specific circumstances.

For example, swales. These horizontal on-contour ditches were designed for very specific soil, climate, and human conditions. In the wrong place, they can easily cause catastrophic landslides.

Through collaborative research, we must be diligent about creating links between recognized techniques and concepts, not just about where this knowledge originally came from, but also the current situation of these people.

Here’s Lucie Bardos with some thoughts on this topic

Decolonizing Permaculture

Read what other teachers are thinking about this too in this free PDF download of the “Decolonizing Permaculture” issue of Permaculture Design Magazine.

Biochar and the Belo Monte dam.

Biochar is in! It can increase soil fertility and hold carbon in the soil. The idea comes originally from the Amazon region. This included the Xingu region of Brazil where the Belo Monte dam is being built.

Here’s what some of the people living there have said:

“The name of this river is Bacajá. It means what flows in our blood is the same as what flows in this river.”Mukuka Xikrin in Voices of Xingu: Xikrin-Kayapó.

Maini Militão describes her family’s heartbreak on finding that their land, where they used to grow everything they needed, had been cleared to store ‘garbage’, which was what Norte Energia called all the trees they cut down.

Antônia Melo, founder of Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, describes how the city of Altamira has changed completely from a sleepy backwater to a violent boomtown.

The rights of the Xingu people continue to be ignored and the Brazilian government faces allegations of human rights violations. If you thinking about using biochar, consider paying your dues for the privilege of having access to this knowledge by first showing solidarity with the Xingu people.

Here are some ideas:

  • Support the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre:
  • Write to the Brazilian government, politely demanding justice for the Xingu people.
  • Pledge to continue acknowledging the source of biochar, to find out more about the tribes and peoples of the Amazon basin and the problems they are facing.
locals gathering to protest the Belo Monte dam

Some awkward questions

​People often think that, in order to reconnect with nature, they now need to move to the countryside and buy some land. Sometimes, however good our intentions, our actions can have negative impacts, so we need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.

Thinking about ownership and belonging, and place and identity:

  • Do you need to buy land?
  • Do you need to move somewhere completely different?

Of course, living in different places can be a life-changing experience. But it’s important to be aware of the privilege being able to move freely entails, and also to be aware of the differences in power and privilege of your chosen location.

As an incomer:

  • Are you a settler? A new colonialist?
  • Could your arrival have a negative impact on a minority culture or language?
  • Being able to buy land is often a privilege denied to local people. The land may be cheap to you, but to local people it may be unaffordable. If the seller or land agent tells you no-one else is interested in the land, check why this is. There may be local people who have tried and failed to obtain a loan.If you decide to go ahead and buy the land, is there some way you can share or gift a portion of it to those who have lost their place?

Thinking back to what colonisation is, ask yourself:

  • What do you see when you look at the countryside?
  • Do you see a blank canvas, or “just” grass, or land that’s not being used “right” or is being “wasted”? 

Don’t forget that listening is an important part of observation. Try for a moment to put aside your eagerness to “rescue” a piece of land, and ask yourself:

  • Who is there now or has been there?
  • What is the land’s history? Its geography? Its microclimate?
  • What are the people’s stories?

​And always, before heading for the hills:

  • List or mind-map your knowledge, experience and expertise, personal and professional, about living and working in your habitat.
  • Consider applying an ecological design-mind to your existing home and areas of expertise. What benefits could this bring? 

Rewilding: is your zone 5 someone else’s zone 1?

If your plan is to rewild the countryside, ask yourself why this piece of land is suitable for rewilding, and why it might not be. 

Enthusiastic rewilders often don’t see the cultural and ecological wealth of the area, or how people depend on each other to survive and make a living in harsh conditions. Their experience and expertise of managing the land may span back generations.

​Instead of rewilding somewhere far away, why not rewild the city? Cities are full of nature, including humans:

A rich vein of potential volunteers and educational groups, ripe for rewilding!

Sources of inspiration include:

Closing thoughts

You may meet some “permaculture designers” who have never considered applying ecological principles to social issues, and may even see it as only applicable to growing food or building a house. 

Privileges, disadvantages, prejudices and power imbalances may not be something they have considered, because they haven’t ever been in a situation where these things are raised as issues to think about. 

Be mindful that if you discuss social justice as part of ecological design, if some people react with hostility or ridicule, there are reasons for their defensiveness. Keep calm, listen, be kind, and keep trying.

However, a growing number do see this work as far more than a way of growing food. Not that growing food isn’t important, far from it. But you know that even with growing food there are many questions to ask, many layers to investigate, the dance of power, privilege and disadvantage to observe, and then to disrupt.


Homework note: this module is huge! And building proficiency as designers who keep these concepts in mind is a lifelong journey. As such, please take your time with these suggested activities. They are “optional,” but the more you move towards the hard questions, the more resilient your designs will become, (and not just for people who look like you.)

Questions for Review

​Thinking about your design project, ask yourself:

  1. What is your social position in relation to your design? Where is your privilege? Your disadvantage?
  2. If your design is land-based, are you only seeing a blank canvas? What is the site’s history? Who has lived there in the past? Where are they now? What is their situation? Are they excluded, landless, displaced? How can your design address this? If it’s not land-based, ask yourself similar questions that dig beneath the blank canvas.
  3. What other social justice issues could your design address? How? Thinking about people who will use your design, ask yourself:​
  4. Who do you imagine using it? What assumptions are you making here?
  5. Who else might use it or want to use it?
  6. Who might be affected negatively or excluded?
  7. What changes could you make to your design to make it more accessible and inclusive? To decolonise it?​

Recommended Hands-On

​Try and or all of these on your learning journey:

  • Attend a meeting of a social justice organization and volunteer to help with a project
  • Find out about the original inhabitants of the land you’re on. Who were they, and where are they now? Do they claim to have been dispossessed of their land and demand reparations or rights to the land again? If so, think seriously about what true “decolonization” and justice would look like–sometimes it means the ones with power have to make sacrifices or be made uncomfortable to do what’s right.
  • Using your Resource Map, identify how you are best able to contribute to a cause you care about
  • If you work for yourself, offer your services on a sliding scale, pay-what-you-can, or offer scholarships for specific communities
  • Identify and patron local businesses owned by people from marginalized communities 
  • Review disability access laws in your area and survey your community for places that may be physically inaccessible to some people; bring them up with the business owner or city government to get them fixed
  • If available, look at maps showing demographic distribution in your city, as well median income, house value, and access to resources like transit, grocery stores, hospitals, and parks. Look for trends and patterns.
  • Look around your home. If you have any items from another culture, particularly an indigenous or minority culture, e.g. artwork, craftwork or musical instruments, find out about the history and the current situation of that culture’s people.
  • Do you follow any practice from another culture, e.g. yoga, tai chi? Find out about the history of the practice and practitioners, including periods of respect and honour, and times of suppression or persecution. Find out the current situation of people in or from this culture or region.
  • Read books written by writers from a culture other than your own.