Permaculture Action Network: Mobilizing Thousands In Direct Action For The Regenerative Movement

Written By Maia Wikler - Photos & Video by Syd Woodward, Hemmie Lindholm & Alex Harris

Upon first thought the combination of permaculture and massive international music festivals may seem like an unlikely pairing. However, the music scene has a long history of holding court with social justice action (which has come to characterise the permaculture movement); for example, antiwar music by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Nina Simone provided the soundtrack for America in the 1960s. The civil rights movement was built upon music, with African American spirituals, gospel, and folk music all playing a crucial role in uniting members of the movement in the face of great adversity. 

Today, the organisation Permaculture Action Network (PAN for short) has taken the history of music and social justice as inspiration for influencing changes of their own. Teaming up with world-renowned artists and music festivals from Rising Appalachia to Burning Man, PAN mobilises concert-goers and the larger public to take part in hands-on, local projects that create lasting regenerative systems in communities across the USA. 

PAN events are characterized by permaculture practices and ethics grounded in the principles of Earth Care and People Care, both of which seek to encourage a thriving environment and society. By pairing these practices with large numbers of people and influential artists, PAN allows their events to have a lasting and wide ranging impact on the communities it visits. As explained by Ryan Rising, the founder of PAN,  “We are changing the cultural narrative, the story of our times, when we partner with artists who have the reach of 1.5 million people.” From planting food forests in Kentucky to digging 800 feet of garden beds in Colorado, PAN prioritises direct action. Rising defines this as “taking action with our own hands to create the world we want to live in… we are not working through the city, government, or big foundations.” By foregoing bureaucratic dances with such establishments PAN’s events are able to directly engage the energy of concert-goers, harnessing it by enabling fans across the world to get involved in their local communities and begin building a just, sustainable world with their own hands. 

The story of Permaculture Action Network began in 2013 in Chiapas, Mexico, where Rising -a grassroots organizer at the time- was attending the Zapatistas’ school to dive deeper into autonomous community organizing practices. The Indigenous-led Zapatista movement in Chiapas is most known for their autonomous communities with bilingual schools that teach Indigenous languages, workers and growers cooperatives, independent health clinics and instilling the women’s revolutionary law. 

While in Chiapas, Rising learned about creating food systems that are resilient to climate change and political injustice. There, he connected with music producer the “Polish Ambassador” and together they realized a vision for a new kind of music tour that could create positive community impact and tangible permaculture action, inspired by the Zapatista teachings which are grounded in principles of social liberation and justice. 

The first Permaculture Action Tour kicked off in 2014 in two cities where, after each concert, upwards of 400 people showed up to learn and engage in permaculture practices. Turning empty lots into community gardens, the team realized they were having an impact- a realisation that birthed a movement. “We saw that we were mobilizing hundreds of people into the movement for the long haul so we decided to make an organization out of it,” Rising says. The tour ended up covering 9,000 miles through 33 cities and 19 states; mobilizing permaculture action along the way. Rising and the PAN team felt that- amidst the ongoing climate crisis and social injustices the world was experiencing- permaculture could offer a practical solution capable of being immediately implemented by anyone and everyone.

That was just the beginning of Permaculture Action Network. Now, in 2019, PAN has recently reached their 95th Permaculture Action Day for Burning Man’s precompression party at an elementary school garden in West Oakland. For Rising, permaculture is a great entry point for people when it comes to the issues of food justice and sovereignty; “we are meeting people where they are at with culture, music, art, festivals, etc. These spaces are where so many people are gathering and finding that sense of connectivity and community for that short time and we take it another step further by talking about permaculture and another step by mobilizing them to take hands on action and then deeper conversations about what this really means… it’s a movement catalyzing process.”

PAN is unique in their organizing approach premised on the self determination of the local projects and communities they collaborate with. Ryan attests, “people know their own solutions better than anyone else.” One of PAN’s most memorable direct actions, made in partnership with Denver Homeless Out Loud, entailed building tiny homes for the homeless in a park for their Permaculture Action Day. The tiny home build elicited two helicopters and full SWAT team raid to shut down the action. Despite the action being shut down, it did force the city of Denver to meet with Denver Homeless Out Loud which culminated in the city’s first legal tiny home village pilot project for the homeless. “Through taking bold, direct action we forced the city to a pretty major concession to engage with a new project that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” Ryan recalls.

The momentum of PAN isn’t slowing any time soon. In July 2019, the collective teamed up with touring musicians from Moon Hooch and Seeds of Power Unity Farm, a black-led local farm in Denver, to build and maintain vital infrastructure for the farm sites, from planting garden beds to skillshares from local presenters. 

To date, PAN has mobilized 14,500 people in 97 Permaculture Action Days in 65 cities throughout 26 states. These mobilizations have helped to regenerate ecosystems and sequester carbon. Action goers have planted over 700 fruit trees, dozens of community gardens, and 30 structures including greenhouses, tiny homes, nurseries and farm stands. According to PAN, they are “building viable alternatives, catalyzing movement engagement, and providing material solidarity for a just transition.”

For Ryan, direct permaculture action, tangible solutions, and sense of community are an ongoing source of hope and energy. “What’s given me a breath from the depression of not knowing… is getting out there giving it our best, starting a new project and taking direct action. That felt a lot more hopeful than sitting at home commiserating on it…We are all working toward our own liberation and the only way we can get there is to create a large collective movement to support one another and go in that direction together.”

Follow Permaculture Action Network here for their upcoming events.