The TH Interview: Maddy Harland of Permaculture Magazine, part one

Maddy Harland is the editor of UK-based Permaculture Magazine (PM), Solutions for Sustainable Living, which she founded with her partner Tim in 1992 (and which we previously featured on TreeHugger here). PM has an international focus and covers all aspects of sustainable living, from permaculture gardening and small-scale sustainable agriculture to green building, low-impact transport and community action. The magazine has 100,000 readers world wide, and has been successfully distributed in the USA since 2003. It is now also available through a network of international wholesalers in many other countries, including Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Portugal, New Zealand and Australia.

Maddy is also a co-founder, again with her partner, Tim, of Permanent Publications, a company dedicated to publishing environmental books, and she was cited for a 'Special Commendation' at the Triodos Bank Women's Ethical Business Awards at the Globe Theatre, London. She is also a founder member of Gaia Education, an international team of educators developing curricula and courses on the Sustainable Development of Urban and Rural Settlements, and she helped found the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire, UK. In the first part of this two-part interview, Maddy discusses the origins of Permaculture Magazine, the recent upsurge of interest in sustainability, and she gives her own personal definition of permaculture. She also discusses what makes the magazine so popular, and reveals the ways in which they try to keep their operations sustainable.
Photo: Tim and Maddy Harland, and their daughters Hayley and Gail in their vegetable garden, by Christine Seaward
TreeHugger: You have been publishing Permaculture Magazine for 15 years now. What brought you to environmentalism, and permaculture in particular, and what then lead you to apply this passion to magazine publishing?

Maddy Harland: My partner, Tim, and I were very interested in conservation and were keen wildlife gardeners back in the 1980s. Then we saw the television programme, 'In Grave Danger of Falling Food', with Bill Mollison and it changed everything. What is the point of having wildlife reserves whilst, at the same time, destroying the landscape with chemical agriculture? And why not grow organic food and mix it all up with native flowers, hedgerows and habitats so that biodiversity increases along with plant health? And why not transform waste into fertility, energy sinks into energy cycles, and use appropriate technology? We'd be mad not to!

It became instantly obvious that ecological stability was not about placing things in boxes and doing little bits here and there. We have to have integrated thinking and holistic design — and in every part of our lives — from how we garden, farm and build our houses, to how we organise our businesses, transport and whole communities. With both of us having publishing backgrounds, it seemed logical to want to share this world-changing information with as many people who would pick up a magazine and read it as possible.

TH: Permaculture Magazine has seen a huge increase in circulation recently. Is this reflective of a wider public interest in sustainable living, or are you simply capturing a larger share of the existing green market?

MH: There is definitely a growing awareness about the finite nature of our natural resources, escalating climate change, and the destruction of our habitats all over the world. But I think it is more than that. Permaculture Magazine represents two qualities. Firstly, it is solution orientated. It says, "Read me — you can do this!". You don't need a doctorate to understand permaculture and you don't need to have skills to start. Anyone can make positive changes in their lives and become self-reliant.

Secondly, permaculture is all about leading by example and putting inspiration into actions, however small. Yes, the problems of the world are complex and enormous but the power of individuals and communities is awe-inspiring. People can achieve so much even without access to large amounts of money. All they need is a few seeds, some recycled materials and encouragement. People come up to me and say, "I first read your magazine a year ago and it has changed my life. Now I am growing food and getting involved with my local community. Best of all, I know my life is better. I used to think I was the only one who thought as I did. Now I know there are people like me all over the world. I am not alone." That sense of community and inspiration is beyond value.

TH: Permaculture is a notoriously difficult term to define. Many think of it simply in terms of gardening and agriculture, yet Permaculture Magazine takes a much broader view, including articles on all aspects of sustainable living. What's your personal definition of the 'P' word?

MH: Permaculture is primarily a thinking tool for designing low carbon, highly productive ways of living. It will become increasingly significant as our planet heats and our finite natural resources dwindle. The permaculture design process is based on observing what makes natural ecosystems endure, establishing their defining principles and using them to mirror nature in whatever we chose to design. This can be gardens, farms, buildings, woodlands, communities, businesses — even towns or countries.

But how can we have an organic agriculture or horticulture and manage our landscapes to sustain themselves over generations on one hand, and then consume goods from industries managed in ecologically damaging ways? It's pointless designing an organic garden and then buying a gas guzzling vehicle or building a house from concrete and steel when we can use local materials with less embodied energy. The original permaculture vision of care for all living and non living things has grown to embrace a deep and comprehensive understanding of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares that involves our many decisions, from the clothes we wear and the goods we buy, to the materials we use for DIY projects. Though we can't all build our own house, or grow all of our own food, we can make choices about what and how we consume and conserve. So Permaculture Magazine has to embrace these aspects of life and explore sustainability in the widest sense, whilst remaining mindful and appreciative of the useful design system with ethics and principles first offered by permaculture's founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

TH: Permaculture Magazine is now widely available across the world. Given the permacultural focus on localism, and knowledge of place, is there any conflict between global communication and local action?

MH: Our global reach was not planned, but it does help keep an independent magazine with no sponsors going. That's a notoriously difficult financial balancing act. It currently has readers in 77 countries precisely because it is not telling people what to do on a local level. The editorial material is sourced from an engaged network of permaculture people all over the world who are testing out ideas, sharing inspirations, best practices and also their difficulties.
There is a sense of 'community' in the magazine, of support and of mutual awareness. Wonderful things happen. We publish an article about building cob ovens for cooking pizza from America and I get an email from the Congo saying, "Thanks so much for the information. I built one here." Materials like mud, straw, and wood are pretty generic. So is the dire need to reduce carbon emissions. So publishing on subjects like the Transition Town Initiatives [whose founder Rob Hopkins was interviewed on TreeHugger here] or the ecovillage movement also ensures we share experiences and lessons to the widest possible audience. The world needs passionate, engaged, problem-solving media and Permaculture Magazine exists to raise the calibre of the sustainability debate and to involve and support people — whoever and wherever they are.

We are, however, mindful about resources. We print on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accredited paper with soy inks, ship overseas by sea and in recycled/reuseable brown envelopes. In addition, we have just launched Permaculture Magazine at exacteditions.com where you can read a sample copy online and subscribe to an electronic version. No paper required. We have also made it available digitally to all the libraries in the world through EBSCO. We are always looking forward and asking, "How can we do better?"
Stay tuned for part two of this interview on Friday, in which Maddy discusses the diversity of approaches to permaculture that exist, the emotional aspects of environmental activism, and the future of Permaculture Magazine. As usual, we also ask Maddy about her top tips for creating a better, greener world.

More information on permaculture and Permaculture Magazine can be found here. For North American readers, Permaculture Magazine is available throughout America and Canada on discerning newsstands or by subscription via the Magazine CyberCenter. Permaculture Magazine is published by Permanent Publications whose books on permaculture are also available in North America via Chelsea Green.

Tags: Permaculture | TH Interview

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