Permaculture, Innovation & Black Sheep

Quail SpringsPermaculture Leave a Comment

By Warren Brush of Quail Springs Permaculture and Casitas Valley Farm and Creamery

Over the past few years, I have had the honor of being able to teach at least eight permaculture courses a year at home and all over the world.  These learning and sharing journeys have weaved my story with others from places in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the USA.

A few years ago, while facilitating a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course in Germany, a question came to my mind to ask the students.  It was a simple question that came from understanding the basics of systems theory stating that, “All new energy enters a system from its edges.”  This simple understanding is clearly postulated in Permaculture’s “methods of design” and is firmly rooted in its core principles.

So when I asked the question, “How many of you are the black sheep of your family?,” to international students attending that course in Germany a few years back, the response was not a complete shock yet spoke to a much more significant pattern.  Over 80% of the room felt they were the black sheep and “edge dwellers” within their families and another 10% answered that they came from families who were black sheep in their communities.   Of course, I didn’t have to travel far from my own hearth to see this as I too was often labeled as a black sheep by my own family and community.

Even before I knew about the systems of Permaculture, I lived with my family in a tipi (a low ecological impact home), had a kitchen garden, wild harvested food, had a composting toilet, heated my water by the sun, was off-grid with both water and energy, and was passionate about tracking skills.

So many people thought my wife, daughter and I were crazy “edge dwellers.”   Now, the story has changed as many people and communities are moving toward this form of living out of necessity to build resiliency and stability in their lives and bioregions.

As more of these simple and ecologically viable manners of living are adopted by more people, we become less “crazy edge dwellers” and the black sheep label turns a bit grey.  As an innovator, I am now asked to speak around the world to grassroots and mainstream groups at universities, schools, organizations, ashrams, community halls, libraries and such about this sort of living and how we can use Permaculture to design for sensibility and equitability in our human living systems.

Since asking the black sheep question in Germany in 2011, I have been asking participants in all my PDC courses spanning four continents the same question to see if there is a pattern.  Sure enough, every single course has had similar response ratios.  This tells us that PDCs are being populated by what I call the “edge-dwelling innovators.”

Historically, innovators have often been considered crazy or radical or called many names including black sheep because they tend to threaten old belief systems.  Galileo and Einstein are included in a long, prestigious list of innovators who were first perceived as “crazy” and then celebrated as geniuses.

When you look from a pattern eye at the black sheep label, you can recognize that it is often given to those who think differently than the masses and who often are innovators in our society.  Until those innovator’s ideas, inventions and systems are widely adopted, they are often considered dangerous or disruptive to the convention of that moment.

When you look at the Diffusion of Innovation theory postulated in 1962 by Everett Rogers, a professor of rural sociology, you see an odd correlation between those who are innovators and those who many refer to as black sheep.  Innovators often have in common the propensity to take risks, to think differently than the masses, and to be willing to act on their own observations and judgments rather than rely on what is socially acceptable.

According to Professor Rogers, diffusion of an innovation occurs through a five–step decision-making process and happens in a traceable fashion through a series of communication channels over a period of time among the members of a similar social system.  Interestingly, the amount of innovators needed to create change is relatively minimal in a population or constituency.  He states that only 1-2.5% of us are innovators; the rest of us are people who adopt the innovations.

This is where I believe the Permaculture movement is truly training people to be the innovators who pattern on their own unique local landscapes and social conditions.  It is truly an effective tool set for holistic innovators to design within the scope and needs of their own bioregional nuance.

Five stages of the adoption process

KnowledgeIn this stage the individual is first exposed to an innovation, but lacks information about the innovation. During this stage the individual has not yet been inspired to find out more information about the innovation.
PersuasionIn this stage the individual is interested in the innovation and actively seeks related information/detail.
DecisionIn this stage the individual takes the concept of the change and weighs the advantages/disadvantages of using the innovation and decides whether to adopt or reject the innovation. Due to the individualistic nature of this stage, Rogers notes that it is the most difficult stage on which to acquire empirical evidence (Rogers 1964, p. 83).
ImplementationIn this stage the individual employs the innovation to a varying degree depending on the situation. During this stage the individual also determines the usefulness of the innovation and may search for further information about it.
ConfirmationIn this stage the individual finalizes his/her decision to continue using the innovation. This stage is both intrapersonal (may cause cognitive dissonance) and interpersonal, confirmation the group has made the right decision.


Following Professor Everett’s bell curve for innovation adoption, innovators make up less than 2.5% of the population while early adopters comprise about 13.5%.  As a movement, we need to identify who are potential early adopters and strategize how to leverage our time and energy to reach them with a powerful and well rooted message of how important Permaculture thinking and action is for the survival of humanity.  I believe that if we focus on gaining a critical mass within the early adopters, the masses will surely follow as this is an observable and repeating pattern within humanity.

As Permaculture social architects and living systems designers, we can use this pattern understanding to strategically design the next stages of growth for the Permaculture movement.  It can help us decide how and where to spend our precious energies as designers and educators to find the most leverage, essentially following the directive of “designing for the most amount of change for the least amount of effort.”

As innovators in our communities, I believe we must identify the people who would likely be the early adopters and direct our energy toward them.  Who are those people and organizations? Well, this is where more discussion among us is needed.

In looking out into the world, I think we must court the sensibilities of entrepreneurs, university researchers, scientists, civic and political groups concerned with community security and stability, farming associations, youth programs, schools, religious/spiritual groups, and the local food movement folks who are realizing that slow food equates to cultural richness. This is just a start of a much longer list of groups with which we can disseminate information in a way that speaks to peoples’ deeper seated responsibilities and obligations.

Recently, my personal priority has been to demonstrate that Permaculture design is financially viable as an entrepreneurial enterprise worthy of local investment dollars. If we definitively show that it can be profitable to buy local land and build a multi-enterprise system that creates local food stability and resilience, ecological regeneration and social equanimity, and economic benefit – much more of our local landscapes would be committed to Permaculture designed systems.  Following the Diffusion of Innovation decision making model, knowledge, persuasion, decision, and implementation processes can all be integrated through this demonstration, its feedback loops, and by the creative and directed sharing of this story to the right people.   This is just one small example of focusing energy on a specific early adopter constituency.  (see our demonstration site doing just this at our Casitas Valley Farm and Creamery –


Relative advantageHow improved an innovation is over the previous generation.
CompatibilityThe level of compatibility that an innovation has to be assimilated into an individual’s life.
Complexity or simplicityIf the innovation is perceived as complicated or difficult to use, an individual is unlikely to adopt it.
TrialabilityHow easily an innovation may be experimented. If a user is able to test an innovation, the individual will be more likely to adopt it.
ObservabilityThe extent that an innovation is visible to others. An innovation that is more visible will drive communication among the individual’s peers and personal networks and will, in turn, create more positive or negative reactions.
[Table 1.  Professor Everett defines several intrinsic characteristics of innovations that influence an individual’s decision to adopt or reject an innovation.]

Since the early 1980’s, I believe that the Permaculture movement has been in its embryonic stage of innovation.  Nearly 35 years since its inception, there have been an estimated 2.5 to 3 million people who have now completed a PDC (quoting Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia in 2013).

In looking at the intrinsic characteristics of innovation adoption in Table 1, we see that as the world changes and as our movement matures we are emerging from our embryo as edge systems thinkers to the next phase of innovation diffusion which is Early Adoption.  When teaching a PDC with Bill Mollison in 2011 in Jordan, he said that we in Permaculture have moved to a new place where we must shift our language when describing the “Principles of Permaculture” to the action driven “Directives of Permaculture.”  This he said is due to the immensity of positive change that humans must initiate or humanity will not be able to continue to exist.  With Bill Mollison’s words and observations he is essentially telling us that our principles must now become action to many more people, hence he is acknowledging we must move the movement into broader adoption through our actions.

In looking at each factor of the intrinsic characteristics of innovation, we can see how the Permaculture movement and the world are changing and growing in ways that make Permaculture more relevant, crucial and enticing to many more people who are not just the edge dwellers but the Early Adopters and the Majority followers.

In looking at each of the intrinsic factors of innovation adoption (see Table 1), I can see how the Permaculture movement is ripe for the next phase:

1)  Relative Advantage, is defined as:  How improved an innovation is over the previous generation.

With the Permaculture movement now a generation old, we can see distinct global social and ecological feedback that our design methodologies are truly an advantage for humanity and the ecologies that sustain us.

2)  Compatibility defined as: The level of compatibility that an innovation has to be assimilated into an individual’s life.

Permaculture, when adopted into one’s life, is truly holistic in its breadth and nature and truly life changing for many people because, I believe, it is compatible with humans on a deep level of ancestral memory and holistic knowing of how we can individually and collectively live on the land in a sustainable and graceful manner.

3)  Complexity defined as: If the innovation is perceived as complicated or difficult to use.

Permaculture design has consistently demonstrated that it is accessible and easily used by people from all walks of life.  It taps deep into that muscle inside of us that is responsible for “common sense” that has been atrophying for many years in the bulk of humanity.

4)  Trialability defined as: How easily an innovation may be experimented.  If a user is able to test an innovation, the individual will be more likely to adopt it.

Time and time again, we have seen that once a person learns the methods of design of Permaculture, they begin to constantly test it in their landscapes and social-scapes.  In fact, most people can no longer look at the patterns of human living and the patterns of nature without seeing how it could be changed or harmonized with.

5)  Observability defined as: The extent that an innovation is visible to others.  An innovation that is more visible will drive communication among the individual’s peers and personal networks and will, in turn, create more positive or negative reactions.

Permaculture is highly visible to others through many forms of contact.  Firstly, there are hundreds of thousands of Permaculture integrated projects around the world that serve as vital demonstration opportunities for other individuals, communities, governments, organizations and businesses. The Permaculture movement has also matured alongside the innovations of the internet and real time sharing of information around the world.  All of this has contributed to the observability of the benefits that Permaculture offers the world through design.

Permaculture based thinking and action is an innovation for life and life nurturing ways that is ready and ripe for adoption by the masses. It is gaining important footholds in the mainstream and, I believe, will quickly grow out of the embryo stage of innovation into the next cycle of integration into the human story.   The permaculture movement is poised for a broader social infusion and we as innovators must continually move to the edge to translate new energy into the system as we evolve towards truly sustainable living for our human family.

So I must ask you, “are you a black sheep in your family and community, an early risk-taking adopter, or a wee lamb within the flock of following masses?”  It is time to move to the edge and be a translator of new and life-giving energy…


Warren Brush is a mentor, storyteller, a certified Permaculture designer and teacher, as well as a husband, a father and a grandfather. He has worked for over 25 years in inspiring people of all ages to discover, nurture and express their inherent gifts while living in a sustainable manner.  He is co-founder and a tender of Quail Springs Permaculture, Regenerative Earth Enterprises, Sustainable Vocations, Wilderness Youth Project, Casitas Valley Farm and Creamery and his Permaculture design company, True Nature Design.  He works extensively in Permaculture education and sustainable systems design in North America, Africa, Middle East, Europe, and Australia. He has devoted many years to mentoring youth and adults to inspire and equip them to live in a sustainable manner with integrity and a hopeful outlook.  His mentoring includes working with those who are former child soldiers, orphans, youth, young adults, families and indigenous peoples worldwide. He teaches courses including: Permaculture Design Certification, Permaculture for International Development, Rainwater Harvesting Systems, Ferro-Cement Tank Building, Spring Rejuvenation, Compost Toilet Systems, Water for Every Farm, Drought Proofing, Ecological Restoration, Cultural Mentoring, Introduction to Permaculture Systems, Food Forestry, and Origins Skills among other offerings. He can be reached through email at [email protected] or by calling his offices at 805-649-8179.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *