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Response to Paul's Increasing the Velocity of Permaculture Video: Cultural Comparisons from Jazz

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I grew up as an aspiring jazz musician. I still enjoy taking out the sax occasionally and playing with musicians who are receptive to ideas harmonically, rhythmically, and enjoy and participating in interplay of those musical ideas. I’m now a budding permaculturalist. I just listened to Paul’s Permaculture Velocity Talk from Permaculture Voices and it brought up a lot of thoughts for me, particularly some parallels relating permaculture and jazz history.

Both permaculture and jazz were founded on politically marginal roots from the perspective of people in power. Neither permaculture nor jazz has a particularly positive connotation in the ears of the average American today. More have heard of jazz and jazz is older, so it’s somewhat a given that more people have an immediate negative reaction to the word jazz than the word permaculture. Permaculture as a public movement is much more recent than jazz. Given the relatively young age of permaculture as a movement, I find some comparisons from the history of the relatively older jazz movement thought-provoking, offering us clues about where our culture as a movement could potentially lead.

When the average American hears the word permaculture, I think the most common response is, “What’s permaculture?” I find this to be a tricky question to answer because, like jazz, permaculture has a very wide umbrella that covers so many different areas. To put a strict definition on either of these words is by the very nature of a definition, limiting to innovation. And different people give different definitions of both subjects, some very limiting and exclusionary. Wynton Marsalis’s definition of jazz, for instance, in Ken Burn’s History of Jazz Documentary gives a definition which excludes much of what most would consider to be under the umbrella of jazz today. One of his criteria for music being jazz is that it has to swing. This excludes many sub-categories of jazz commonly considered to be under the jazz umbrella such as latin jazz and jazz fusion to name just a couple. This type of exclusionary thinking, however, started much earlier in jazz history. Jazz great Louis Armstrong publicly stated that what jazz innovator Charlie Parker was doing in the 1930s and 1940s was not jazz. Parker’s work ended up being so monumental to jazz that it became universal inspiration and information to almost all jazz occurring after that.

Other jazz artists believed that it was limiting to have a rigid definition of jazz circulating in the minds of its artists at all. Miles Davis classically responded to someone asking what jazz was with, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” This attitude clearly discourages a strict definition from forming in an individual’s mind and encourages the interested party to be more observant also leaving the door open for innovation in the art form.

It’s my opinion that limiting definitions don’t help progress and we should keep the word permaculture as open as possible, not limiting others innovation by our own opinion about what has worked for us in the past. Louis Armstrong was an incredibly successful and great musician but his limiting comments on Parker created a schism in an art form that almost always had a marginal public opinion for various, largely political reasons. Jazz is an art-form largely created by former slaves and generations down from former slaves of a country. That sounds a lot like permaculture. Permaculture is a lot like an art form that by it’s very nature is likely to be considered marginal by a public that is conditioned to dependent on corporations for it’s subsistence, information, and security. Permaculture teaches people true self-sufficiency. Corporations are willing to invest a lot of money into that being seen as a marginal thing.

Given that we don’t have the greatest odds of being the most popular thing out of the gate it would make sense for us to all get along and show each other some mutual respect despite our different tastes within our chosen art-form, right? From what Wheaton is saying in his talk about the social problems within permaculture it doesn’t seem like we are, on the whole, following this basic idea as well as we could be. This brings up, for me, more cultural parallels from jazz history. In the early jazz days there were these things called cutting contests. After performances jazz musicians would go to a residence and have musical competitions where they would go back and forth improvisationally competing to musically speak something more impressive than what was said previously by the opposing musician, almost like a not too congenial scientific debate. The goal was to prove that you were better than the opposing musician. Another thing that comes to mind from the jazz experience is Charlie Parker, bofre he was the great innovator going to a jam session at the age of 13 and getting a cymbal thrown at him because the drummer thought he sounded bad. That sounds a lot like a regional permaculture teacher publicly calling another permaculturalist an idiot because they disagree with their opinion. Is this really the type of culture we want in permaculture?

I agree with Paul that this type of culture is a big reason for the lack of balanced gender involvement on a public level in permaculture, a problem shared with jazz. I went to a competitive audition-only based arts high school. The school was 66% female 33% male. Within the school was a jazz department. It was the most male dominated department in the whole school. I was in the top small group jazz ensemble which had 6 to 7 members depending on the year. There was never a female member. The big bands on average had 1 female member out of 20-24 members. Even just within the larger music department, and excluding dance, theater, and visual arts there were girls than boys. I also very briefly attended a very prestigious and expensive music college that had a historic core of jazz education. Their male to female ratio is more skewed than America’s top military academies.

Why is this the case in jazz? The competitive and sometimes hostile environment discourages sensitive people from reaching the higher levels. On average masculine culture tends to value competition and feminine culture tends to value cooperation. Innovators tend to draw a lot of criticism and negativity along their path to success and with art-forms like jazz and permaculture that are built on new things and innovation, there is likely to be a lot of negativity and criticism floating around out there. I think we need to mitigate that negativity as much as possible and stop it from bombarding individuals in our movement. For that reason I am in full support of the censorship that Paul talks about using on these forums in his Permaculture Velocity talk.

I’m not claiming to have the answers to any of these wide-reaching cultural issues. I do think that we can be the examples of mutual respect that we want to see and I would however like to discuss these issues with the larger community. Thanks for reading my thoughts.

Shoutout to Paul Wheaton!

Thanks for the thought provoking and relevant talk for our culture and the future of our movement. I’m very much looking forward to meeting you at the upcoming PDC.

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