Popular education

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Adapting to both the direct effects of climate change and the economic, social and cultural consequences of massive reductions in global levels of carbon emissions will require collective learning on an unprecedented scale. Permaculture has grown and spread worldwide as a popular education movement. In the process it has incorporated new ideas and practices as it adjusts to different settings and changing circumstances.

At the heart of permaculture practice are processes of action learning – trying something out, observing the effects, and adjusting future practice accordingly. Teaching takes a similar approach: open and pragmatic, valuing and drawing on learners' pre-existing knowledge.1 Permaculture is taught not as orthodoxy, but as a flexible framework that requires innovation and exposure to new information and as a consequence is different every time it is taught. This has allowed productive synergies with indigenous and local knowledge, and incorporation of social technologies neglected in early years, but now known to be vital to the success of any project.2

The Himalayan Permaculture Centre in Nepal (HPC) trains local farmers in permaculture design and a range of techniques of demonstrated value in improving livelihoods and supporting climate adaptation and other challenges.3 Direct peer-to-peer learning from those trained to other farming spreads these ideas and practices far beyond those actually present on the course. As farmers apply such techniques, they make improvements and adjustments from which HPC staff can learn, adjusting the content of taught material accordingly.4 The Chikukwa Project in Zimbabwe partly formalises peer learning processes through organised learning visits to farms, making the sites and the farmers' knowledge and skills available as educational resources.5 Links with international permaculture teachers, writers and students communicate knowledge and practice of local practitioners to the global permaculture community, allowing useful innovations for climate change adaptation to spread worldwide.

Permaculture courses, workshops and events are more than just sites of teaching and learning in the conventional sense. They are vital nodes in creation of communities of practice at all scales and levels, that subsequently allow exchange of new information and ideas. The Transition approach of community-led responses to climate change originated as a group design project as a permaculture course.6 Much of its rapid spread was initially due to permaculture teachers taking it up and applying it in their own communities. As its influence spread more widely, Transition brought permaculture to vast new audiences. Its innovations in areas such as personal resilience and energy descent have changed how many people think about, teach and apply permaculture.

Gaia University delivers permaculture-based programmes in eco-social design to people all over the world using distance and virtual learning methods.7 It promotes a culture of action-based un/learning, rooted in a willingness to document, learn from and share experiences arising from direct involvement in practical measures to address climate change and other environmental and social issues. Learners at Gaia University take on active roles in peer support, later contributing to content delivery and mentoring of others at earlier stages in their un/learning journeys. They are progressively socialised into and encouraged proactively to shape a global community of engaged change activists committed to ongoing self-reflection and collective learning. This is a microcosm of the wider permaculture community, which in turn seeks to act as a model for the global processes of learning and change necessary for humanity as a whole to address the responsibilities that come from living in the Anthropocene, a world in which the ever-present reality of climate change presents a profound challenge to accepted ideas and practices in almost all fields of human endeavour.