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Ecological Literacy through Permaculture

Originally appears in the Winter 2012-2013 issue

Forty years ago, the design philosophy of permaculture was ahead of its time – has time finally caught up?  We are now seeing terms like ‘relocalization,’ ‘resilience’ and ‘eco-design’ being used more commonly in sustainability dialogue, concepts which have been central to permaculture since the 1970s. Permaculture is nearly as old as the modern EE movement, yet many green teachers have yet to tap into local permaculturists to serve as inspirational sustainability role models for their students. Practicing permaculturists, and the worldwide permaculture movement, have much to offer sustainability education, particularly by providing opportunities to engage students in transformative, relevant and hands-on learning experiences.

Over the last four years, I have been exploring a permaculture approach to junior secondary science (ages 14-16), although much of my theoretical framework and many of my findings can be applied to other learning areas. Through the research process, I have identified five characteristics of permaculture that can be employed to cultivate ecological literacy in students. Those characteristics are: permaculture design thinking; permaculture techniques; permaculture properties; permaculture practitioners; and, the transformative nature of permaculture. These characteristics can be used to enhance the teaching and learning of science or other subject areas, while cultivating systems thinking and exposing students to sustainable living practices. This article explains these five characteristics and provides examples of how they can be employed in a science class.

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Nelson Lebo is an education researcher, curriculum designer, and practicing permaculturist, who lives in Whanganui, New Zealand. He recently completed doctoral research at The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, and can be reached at