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Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 026: Permaculture

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. After the Second World War, pesticides became a way of life in America and by the mid 1950’s, more than 600 million pounds of toxic pesticides were being applied each year in our country. Then in 1962, Rachel Carson's book Silent Springshook things up. Carson showed how the chemical industry, agribusiness, and the government were poisoning the environment. 

Rachel Carson: Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called insecticides, but biocides. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Silent Springhelped give rise to the modern environmental movement, and just a few years after her book was published, a chemist called James Lovelock was working with NASA to compare the atmosphere of Pluto with that of Earth. 


JAMES LOVELOCK: I remember it very vividly. If our atmosphere is so extraordinarily difficult, so reactive and yet, it stays constant for millions of years, something must be regulating it. And since I knew that these gases all came from living organisms, it must be life that was doing the regulating.

JARED BLUMENFELD: From the realization that earth is a self-regulating dynamic super organism emerged the GAIA theory. The anti-pesticide movement grabbed onto these new GAIA principles, and the permaculture movement was born in the 1970s, just as we were beginning to recognize that our local actions often have far greater impacts on the biosphere than originally intended. Silent Spring taught us that chemicals designed to just kill pests on cabbages with far reaching in their toxicity, impacting the web of life in ways that had not been understood. And Lovelock showed that due to GAIA’s feedback mechanisms, our local actions can lead to reactions on a global scale. This week we're going to focus on permaculture, which started as an effort to reform agriculture and has evolved into a way of understanding and designing our relationship with each other and with the natural world. One of the leading practitioners of social permaculture is Pandora Thomas. Pandora is the co-founder of the Black Permaculture Network. She's worked with Toyota to support African Americans adopting sustainable lifestyles. She designed and teaches the Pathways to Resilience Training Program that works with men and women returning home after incarceration, and Pandora is part of Resilient by Design that works collaboratively with vulnerable communities in the San Francisco Bay area to design climate adaptive solutions. I started by asking Pandora if she has a definition for permaculture. 

PANDORA THOMAS: First of all, the name doesn't make any sense and it's like, does it have to do with agriculture? I've heard it's from permanent agriculture. For me, the name, I don't want it to keep people from understand that it's about first observing and interacting with a place, with the land, with the community and then observing patterns and starting to apply principles that are rooted in ecological wisdom and nature based on wisdom and then building relationships. A lot of what we see in terms of design of buildings and just many things, it'll feel just disjointed. Have you ever been in traffic and you're like, who thought about designing it this this way? It feels not connected and you know, the pedestrians don't have a space to do this and the cars, you know, so permaculture invites us to look at when we're designing, how are we creating relationships and more harmony? But at the same time, not just sustaining, because permaculture does not want to be sustainable. We want to go beyond sustainable. We actually want to help regenerate natural systems and allow human needs to be met while we're regenerating those systems and it's also ongoing. You don't do a permaculture design and then it ends. That's the beauty. Natural cycles are always changing and always living and dying and their cycles. So, with the permaculture design, it's embedded that there'll be change, and the relationships will shift, but what you are trying to help is create the right placement and the right functions partnering with each other. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay. So, is permaculture just a bad name for cool set of principles?

PANDORA THOMAS: It's got a crap name. And the other thing is so much of it is rooted in all of these other legacies. So that's why people that are frustrated with the name are, rightly so. It's like someone slapped the name on ageless traditional indigenous knowledge. So, permaculture as a definition that I use, is an ecological design system rooted in indigenous wisdom and knowledge that elevates ecosystem health while meeting human needs. Permaculture is an approach. It's a lens. It's a series of questions and principles that you apply. Being rooted in indigenous wisdom and knowledge means that many of the strategies and techniques that we might associate with permaculture are not just new, but they're like an amalgam of what indigenous people have done all over the world, but also modern contextualization of some of those things. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Talking of contextualization, tell us about your family history. You grew a long way from the hippie encampment we find ourselves in right here in Berkeley, California. 

PANDORA THOMAS: My father and mother both were part of the sharecropping community in the south. My mother's family migrated north to Farrell, Pennsylvania, and even though they were forced to do the home grown, they lived in a cabin. They had to make all their own food. That was actually more poverty for them because they were forced to do it through sharecropping. It's miraculous that my mother still raised me with this passion for plants and observing what was around me. My dad took me fishing. I grew up two blocks from a steel mill, which my father worked at and it's now closed, but this steel mill, like many, was polluting the Sharon river and many of our communities. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is sharecropping? 

PANDORA THOMAS: Sharecropping was a system where there would be a family that lived on someone's land. They worked that land and then they would turn over the harvest and then oftentimes they would actually have to either buy it back or…so that's a reason there wasn't much sharing going on. It was actually like forced labor. And having my family grew up in that, I think, ruptured that relationship with the earth which is really sad because that's what happened to a lot of families in the south. But at the same time, there was this strong connection and there was this knowledge passed onto my mother, which she then passed onto me. That ancestral relationship with the earth and actually my African and indigenous ancestry. 90 percent of the men in my family have either been incarcerated or are just dealing with it. I only know of one or two that I can think of that haven't somehow been caught up with it. And so, I've always wondered, how would I give back? Since I wasn't living back home, and I don't really see those family members, my question was always, what's my role in this prison industrial complex? 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You decided to answer that question by introducing permaculture to inmates in San Quentin, America's most infamous prison. Before we hear about your work there though, let's hear from Johnny Cash playing in San Quentin in 1969. 

JOHNNY CASH: I try to put myself in your place and I believe this is the way that I would feel about San Quentin.  San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me…

PANDORA THOMAS: It’s San Quentin and it's like this crazy institution of incarceration located on the water's edge in the Bay area. A woman who I was friends with, Angela Sevin, had been going into San Quentin for years and running these groups and she was like, these men need to see and hear you, and you need to hear them because there's so much wisdom on both sides. But the minute I entered, it was like I felt physically just the pressure of someone walking through these doors and more of the people not being able to leave until someone lets them. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: He's a recording from Adnan Khan who's currently serving a 25 year to life sentence in San Quentin for robbery and murder.


ADNAN KHAN: Most of my time was spent in a maximum-security, level four prison, and in these level four prisons, there aren't any rehabilitative programs. The culture is very violent. There's a lot of violence, race riots, stabbings, assaults, and when those incidents happen, the prison goes on lockdown which means I can spend from an hour to a year inside of a cell. So, when we're on these lockdowns, there is no education. Education that will be given to you is basically what you give or how you want to educate yourself during these lockdowns. My first 10 years were spent 80, maybe 90 percent inside of a cell. So, during that time, psychologically I think the human brain is forced to tap into survival mode. I feel like that's relative to the individual. So how I related to survival was to make sure my mind was sharp. I don't get defeated, go crazy, lose my mind. So, I would read spiritual books, The Bible, The Koran, Buddhist books or any self-help book that I would find. My favorite thing to read was about successful people. Anyone that had a success story, famous, I would love to read biographies or autobiographies about them and I think I didn't realize at that time, but I think what it did for me was, was keep a sense of hope and whatever hope looked like, I felt like I had something to look forward to. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Holy crap. I can't even imagine what it must feel like to spend a week, let alone an entire life in San Quentin. Pandora, what did it feel like when you were there? 


PANDORA THOMAS: Just brought in everything people in my family have dealt with. So, when I started, I met these men who had started something called The Green Life, which was a peer mentoring eco-literacy program where they wanted to work to empower and educate each other on the future and how could you green this prison system.  You know, things that people are shocked and I'm like, these men are just like us. They're just incarcerated. And so, for about three years I had the honor of working with them to run this Green Life Academy.


JARED BLUMENFELD: Given that many of the prisoners in San Quentin, like Adnan, may be there for life, how did it make them think about the outdoors? 

PANDORA THOMAS: You need to first see everyone's humanity, no matter their circumstance. It was around the time when there was a huge spill off of some coast, and we talked about in the class and many of them, some of them had cried. And again, it's like the same pain and frustration we're on outside feeling about what's happening. They were expressing that. We would do activities that help them reconnect to stories and experiences of being in nature when they were outside, but also on the inside. So, they really just loved being able to retrace that connection, learn how to teach their peers about it. So, I think they were just excited to be equipped with the same kind of environmental literacy that others have and having it on the inside. And the men also encouraged us to then go off and work out for the reentry community. So, for men and women coming home, the powerful shifts that can happen when they're learning about natural systems and their own patterns. And so, permaculture can also be applied to social systems and how do we start to shift those social patterns to make it more beneficial for everyone involved? But learning from them at the same time. And that's what working with men inside and men and women on the outside has really taught me. You can do multiple things. You can help someone learn more about how natural systems work and understand what patterns got them where they're at, and then think of strategies and solutions to move forward. It doesn't have to be isolated. It can be linked. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: In addition to working with prisoners, you help incorporate permaculture into community climate resiliency projects. One of them is in Marin, only five miles from the gates of San Quentin prison. 


PANDORA THOMAS: We are a part of a design competition over this last year where Marin City, a small community, 3000 people. They have been dealing with flooding and all sorts of other challenges that many communities have dealt with, but specifically this design challenge was focused on climate resilience. We didn't start as designers to go in and say we're going to come up with some designs and then we'd love to get your feedback and engage you as a community. We wanted to turn that on the head and start with, what do you as a community even need us to focus on? What are you already doing? What assets already exist? What around flooding have you been doing and emergency preparedness? So, they assessed. They shared their stories. We talked a lot about what it has looked like as long as these African American communities. They actually all moved there at the same time to work in the shipyard. So, they have that knowledge and that legacy. Then as they assessed what happened, we started to go out onto the land, observe, and then slowly they learned and shared strategies. So, what might you do in this site to curb flooding? And then, we would share ideas, they would share ideas. And so, in this course that was called designing our own solutions, we taught permaculture, but we made it relevant. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So how did you make it relevant for them? 


PANDORA THOMAS: We created what's called “A People's Plan for Marin City.” And this people's plan is not a static plan. It's a plan that can be changed and adapted, and it's rooted in again the assessment, the knowledge, the systems’ awareness that the people in Marin City had that we elevated with them. And then they came up with six projects throughout Marin city that is a combination of a resiliency hub with water storage tanks, an intergenerational garden, and solar panels so that there if is an emergency, this can be the place where everyone in Marin City can go to and there'll be food and energy, power and water. Now the county wants to include the People's Plan. Now political leaders are saying, wow, instead of just inviting community members to town hall, how do we continue to equip community members to elevate their eco-literacy? And they come up with a plan and then we are engaging with that plan. It takes the work off of their shoulders. They then are at a more peer level, rather than just having the experts come in and not always be able to translate. There are all these different communities and many of them have left out the voices of so many, but the ones that are including the voices are more of the environmental justice and the Black Land Liberation Movement. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Sounds like there are huge opportunities to use the practices from permaculture to get local knowledge into decision making.

PANDORA THOMAS: I wish there was more coordination that started with acknowledging what often times our communities of color, low income communities, all these different communities that are just on the ground doing things because they're taking lead to solve without bureaucracy, listening to all these environmental justice leaders that have been doing this and saying all this stuff for years and ignored thrown a little bit of pittance, but it's like it’s been racist…


JARED BLUMENFELD: So how do you view your role, Pandora? 


PANDORA THOMAS: I'm hoping I can be the bridge, but funnel resources more on the ground where it's immediately shaping lives and usually more inclusive. Usually, the strategies and the solutions that come from these smaller community-based organizations are what we call in permaculture, stacking functions, so doing multiple things with one situation. You get your health screening and there's childcare and you're learning about food, but there's also some hip-hop music, and there's also a ritual to deal with a police shooting that just happened. A lot of these small organizations how to integrate and really listened to because they are the people experiencing it and I want to be a bridge as much as possible to those different worlds. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: The early days of the permaculture movement kind of looked like a bunch of old white guys gardening on Sundays, but doing it using traditional practices. Is that fair? 


PANDORA THOMAS: There's a lot of folks who are like, the founders of permaculture are two white guys from Australia and how dare they, and they’re right. So, what I usually say is, I will credit them with the research, the analysis, the energy they did to compile this wisdom from all over the earth that had been happening. Compile it, packaging it, and reselling it, and actually doing it. I'll credit them with that and knowing that these truths are ageless. They come from such a deeper place. Yes, I use permaculture when it's relevant, but also, in the Black Permaculture Network, we call it afro-indigenous. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: And you decided to use those principles, including the teachings of the Black Panthers, to create your own movement.


PANDORA THOMAS: So, myself and a woman named Zakiya Harris co-founded the Black Permaculture Network in response to other black folks being like, where are we in this permaculture movement? Sometimes we get white folks are like, how do we support The Black Permaculture Network? And we don't want to say, just give us money, but it’s kind of an organization for black folks to really lift each other up and share resources. And so, we felt defining what these principles are for us and rooting it in our language and wisdom and legacy was really key. It's a relevance piece. Even being mentored by someone can be challenging because it was only men available for mentoring. So, I've met a lot of young people who said they couldn't find a mentor that was comfortable. I teach a permaculture teacher's training for women and it's not just about teaching land-based permaculture design, but how do you integrate these principles into your life? So that's been really powerful to do it for myself, and then be able to share it, especially with other women because in the permaculture community, it's largely been men for a long time who've received a lot of the accolades and mostly men of European ancestry. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: How does permaculture help has reach across the political divide?


PANDORA THOMAS: I keep wondering how can I sit in a space with someone that seems different and think about what they bring to the table and listen? Not just already have my “You're a Trump supporter” or you're this, but it's like, see someone. If I claim that we're all part of an ecological system and we need relationships, what would it look like listening to the people that it feels we're so separate from? Because we kind of do that to the earth, like we're so disconnected from trees that give us life. We treat it as other. And I feel like we do that with people and in the social permaculture training, it really helps you slow down and start to identify patterns. How am I observing and interacting with the situation? Instead of demonizing you and attacking but sitting back and trying to nurture and design a way for us to be together with each other and really honor each other. We might not work together even agree or even end up liking each other, but I haven't killed you, shot you, or taken your humanity. It's like, I've been able to at least be in space with you. So that's like my big dream for permaculture community to have spaces where we're bringing this approach to observe and interact.


JARED BLUMENFELD: What are the first steps beginners can take to engaging in permaculture practices?


PANDORA THOMAS: You can actually start going outside and strengthening building wherever you're at, your relationships with your environment, your local area. Just start to build your own relationship with the land, the systems that you're a part of, the communities and what they're dealing with. And taking it back to that word, start to identify what assets do you actually have? What resources do you have access to already like, do you live somewhere and there's like a library that has speakers or there's somewhere you can go and hear someone speak or just start to connect with others who are practicing it so that you're not on this journey. And then also try to see if there are people that you could start connecting with who could also help you learn together.


JARED BLUMENFELD: Pandora, do you have any go-to permaculture resources? 


PANDORA THOMAS: So, there's a movie, it's called Inhabit and it takes this difficult permaculture concept and contextualizes it. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Here's a clip from the movie Inhabit:


CLIP from INHABITAT: Nature is the best thing we got. Like point to something else that's better. There's nothing that we don't have anything else and it hasn't only survived. It's thriving. It's found ways to adapt to new conditions. A keystone species is any species in an ecosystem whose population and behavior affects every other species. That's certainly what we are as a species right now. In order for us to design an agriculture or a culture that is ecological, then we have to look to our local models and that's the forest. That is our teacher. Creating a multistory ecosystem with mushrooms and berries and fruits and nuts and grazing animals and vegetables all interwoven. This idea of permaculture. We can actually be healing forces.


JARED BLUMENFELD: Inhabitsounds like a great movie and Pandora happens to be in it. You can go to to download or stream it. Pandora, what are the big questions that you're wrestling with at the moment? 


PANDORA THOMAS: How are we creating practices or having ways to keep us connected to our land base or what gives us life? How are we starting to take steps to be doing the thing that we think needs to happen? So, if you are committed to a climate adaptation but in ways that are more inclusive, maybe you can start going to hear what different groups of people are doing on it already. You don't have to make up the solution. That's the other thing. People are like, we need innovative solutions in Silicon Valley area. Yes, but so much of what our ancestors and our elders have been saying, we haven't effectively done. And when you really unpack permaculture, people's minds are blown. Because they're like, I have known all this stuff, it’s like in my DNA. I could apply the design system right to my life where I live with my mother. But also, didn't have to wait to have land because that's where the access challenge really in equity is such a big part in permaculture. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the things about early views of permaculture was that you needed to have land in order to practice. Is that still the case today? 


PANDORA THOMAS: Everybody doesn't have access to land, but we have access to each other. And what we're doing now, we have to take it from it just being about the land. But how are we seeing how we work as a social system and an ecological system? We're so disconnected, but once we understand that it will empower us more to constantly understand better how to build relationships and live more in relationships with ecological systems because we're part of it. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: When your mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, you turned to permaculture for help. 


PANDORA THOMAS: She's been living with me for about seven years. And so, as that was about to happen, I was thinking of how do I use the design approach, which permaculture is rooted in, this design system? Which is you start by assessing and analyzing the situation and then understanding the resources you have access to in the gaps. And then, well, you actually start with a goal, and then you access and analyze, and you strategize, and you implement. And so, I actually do that. I wanted to have a life for her. She moved from Pennsylvania to California and it was like, I don't know what I'm going to do. And so, I kind of accessed and analyzed and tried to design a situation where I wouldn't be away from her all the time. And how do I set up networks and experiences for her and I can tell you it took a while, but now like seven years later, I'm able to be there for her. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Pandora, that is truly amazing. Thank you for sharing that with us. And for all the work you're doing to help make permaculture relevant. In 2018, you gave us a sense of what's possible by understanding how everything in life is connected. Thanks to Pandora for all the work you were doing to help make permaculture relevant in 2018 and for giving us a sense of what is possible by understanding how everything in life is connected. I loved how Pandora suggested that the first thing we can do to begin integrating permaculture into our lives, this is simply walk out our front door and see what's happening in our neighborhoods. When I was hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, I realized that it was the small things on the path that really engaged me, from lupine flowers to pine needles. Rather than focusing on a hierarchy of beauty that began and ended with the mighty Sierras, the web of life is what kept my interest day in and day out. Using permaculture as a design tool to help local communities to find their own path for dealing with climate change was totally cool. I'm so excited to find out more about permaculture is it seems like a great way of marrying indigenous knowledge and practices with a modern understanding of the world. Next week, we discover that while rock'n'roll may not be noise pollution, the sound of highways in our communities certainly is. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer, Rob Spate, Producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.

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