Reflections on Bringing Permaculture to the White House and Meeting President Obama

Editor’s Note: I want to congratulate Ryan and the UMass team on this significant milestone, and also wish to thank all of our readers who took a moment to vote to help ensure it came to pass. Onwards!

The White House honors five young leaders as Champions of Change for outstanding leadership on their college campuses, chosen by the public for their projects that embody the President’s goal to win the future.

The past few weeks have been life changing for me, and for many others who are part of the permaculture community at UMass Amherst. Possibly others from around the world, too. Together, we successfully brought permaculture to the national stage, and by we I mean the entire global network of permaculturists who live by the ethics “Earth Care”, “People Care”, “Share of Surplus”.

Over 1 million practitioners, with over 5,000 projects in more than 140 countries. — David Holmgren, 2003

All of us can celebrate this victory: we self-organized our global community and made a statement that want permaculture to be discussed at The White House. And it happened last week. Although it might have been only for a few minutes, it was quite an important step for permaculture in my opinion. I am grateful, humbled, and honored to have been able to tell President Obama personally about the global initiative to transform underused and/or badly damaged landscapes and systems into ones that are more ecological sound and socially responsible. It is done by utilizing the power of community (many many hands!) and only using very minimal amounts of fossil fuels when necessary. It’s called permaculture, President Obama, and we have the knowledge, the skills, and the passion to grow this movement into something much larger than it already is.

A seed has been planted and that is how all things must start.

This is only the start, of something much larger that needs to keep happening by more and more individuals across the planet. Questions have come up in the international permaculture community about whether this will have any affect or if it is just another popularity contest or an attempt to get more young people interested in politics during the election year. In my humble opinion, I think it will have a drastic impact, and already I see this happening through 1) important permaculture discussions on listservs, 2) permaculture presentations being given to Senior Administration at UMass Amherst and other institutions, and 3) dozens of media articles being written about permaculture going to The White House.

I think we are absolutely ready and must take action to bring the vision of permaculture to the next level at this very important and historic time in history. We know how to implement permaculture landscapes — it’s happening all across the world. Millions are demonstrating how to restore degraded and desertified sites into ecological and edible paradises. But where we run into the most trouble, how I see it, is working together and putting our differences aside. I think it is the social organizing, the communicating, and all of our the inner landscapes that we must improve upon to truly create an environmentally-sustainable, socially-responsible, and economically-just world… one that we all can envision and want to see manifested.

Below is a video that one of my students, Mia Shimokawa, created after filming numerous parts of our road trip to Washington DC and our experiences at the Champions of Change event. As another UMass Permaculture Committee member said, I felt a bit emotional after watching this video, because to me, it accurately depicts what permaculture is truly about: groups of individuals working together to care for each other and the planet. And sharing as much as possible with others who need it. I hope you’ll enjoy the video.

A lot is happening right now to take advantage of the positive momentum that this White House contest has enlivened. The main question on my mind has been: how do we redirect this energy into direct action and positive change? To start, a few new permaculture coordinator and teaching positions are being proposed to keep growing the UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative. Additionally, numerous grant and award submissions are being written, discussions are happening with the development office, and a permaculture track is being proposed under the Sustainable Food and Farming major in the renowned UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture. Outside of UMass, all of the local permaculture designers and educators in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts are up to their heads in teaching gigs, clients, and other projects. The demand for knowledgeable and capable permaculturists is rising exponentially as I see it. And I don’t expect this to slow down anytime soon. Permaculture is a concept, a vision, a lifestyle (not a new one) who’s time has come, and there’s no stopping it.

I have a bit of advice to those who are new to the movement and have a lot of passion and excitement to become a leader in this network. Be sure to study the history of the movement: respect and honor all that has been done before us. Understand the work that the amazing permaculture pioneers did over the past 40 years to bring us to where we are at today. Appreciate where we are at now – don’t live in the fear paradigm (hold the vision of abundance!) and keep a positive outlook despite some of the things that might anger or upset you. The opportunities that we can create are limitless.

Permaculture Your Campus Conference:

Visit to learn about the international conference at UMass Amherst this coming June 20-22, 2012. We will be working with other individuals and groups who want to start similar permaculture initiatives and landscaping on their campus (school, college, university, hospital, etc!) This is an emerging trend and we want to share as many of our experiences (successes and difficulties) as possible with those who want to embark on a similar journey. I hope to see you there, and please feel free to e-mail Conference (at) for more information.