An antidote to eco-despair

The story behind my research is my own story of finding permaculture at a time when, frankly, I was in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

Climate change, resource depletion, degradation of ecosystems, and pollutants detectable in virtually every corner of the world present a social and ecological crisis on a truly planetary scale. These problems are compounded by the spectre of resource conflicts, the erosion of democratic institutions, economic instability, and rising inequality.

As an undergraduate student in Environmental Studies, I became acutely aware of the vastness of these challenges at a time in my life when, according to dominant societal narratives, I was to be “figuring myself out” in preparation for the successful career that supposedly awaited me after graduation. But faced with this context of turbulence and uncertainty, I felt ill-equipped, overwhelmed, and unsure what to do next. I knew how to talk critically about the problems, but felt I lacked the skills or agency required to really make a difference. I struggled to articulate an answer when peers would ask with cynicism, “It’s too late, the world is doomed. What can we really do about it, and why should we bother trying?”

I have shared countless conversations over the years with other students who have experienced similar struggles. Living in times of uncertainty and ecological decline can be highly destabilizing and breed anxiety, paralysis, and fear. The work of Joanna Macy and others strives to acknowledge and respond to this “eco-despair”.

In my own educational journey, I was afforded the opportunity to take a Permaculture Design Course for Directed Study credit toward my undergraduate degree. The two-week residential course at O.U.R. Ecovillage in Shawnigan Lake, B.C. was, for me, a transformative experience immersed in nature and community. I emerged with a different perspective on the challenges ahead: one that saw the possibility that by designing systems with observation and intention, humans could meet our needs while regenerating ecosystems rather than destroying them. Developing relationships with people who were working on inspiring, solution-oriented projects instilled in me a new sense of motivation. I stopped talking about how what we have can be sustained. Instead, I join a conversation about how communities can be resilient and not only adapt—but thrive—amid inevitable changes.

O.U.R. Ecovillage Community

The more I spoke with others, the more I realized that this powerful shift was a common experience. The more I spoke with university students, the more I could sense a burgeoning of student interest in and demand for permaculture education.

Faculty in the University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies showed interest too. As they sought feedback on how to strengthen their programs, I became convinced that permaculture education could contribute something unique and impactful. Permaculture offers an opportunity to harness the power of solution-focused design, relationship building, and inciting passion in creating resilient communities. Alongside my research, I’ve had the great fortune to be involved in establishing the first undergraduate permaculture courses offered at UVic.

Having developed many relationships with people in the permaculture movement, and hearing their hopes and concerns about engaging with institutions, I wanted to understand what this engagement could mean for them too. I believe this engagement can help the permaculture movement and universities make important progress toward their sustainability goals. In this light, the major goal of my research is to facilitate relationships between the movement and academia that are mutually beneficial for all.

O.U.R. Ecovillage – Creating Beneficial Relationships (Credit: Dana Wilson)


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