From Academia to Permaculture- Article

This article was printed as “Giving up the ‘Good Life’ for Paradise” in The Octopus, Oct 16, 1998, Champaign, IL  Written by an unknown permaculture student who was at La’akea prior to our buying the land.

Hitchhiking home from beneath a coconut tree near the black sand beach, watching the steam billow from where the lava meets the ocean, reflecting on another day in tropical paradise… a couple of students from a Midwestern university see my thumb and pick me up. We say a little bit about ourselves and then the driver, Heather, says, “A farmer with a Ph.D., huh?” and her companion, Jacob, an economics major says, “Yeah, aren’t you going to do anything with all of that education?”

I laugh, because that’s the comment I get most often when I tell someone that I just finished 8 years of grad school at the U of I and am now farming in Hawai’i. I think about how many candy-sweet pineapples I’ve eaten this week and the pleasant lifestyle I have and consider saying, “Hey, wouldn’t you rather be a poor farmer in tropical paradise than a rich professor in Chicago?!” but before I respond, Jacob adds, “Isn’t it expensive to live here in Hawai’i?” I look around at the abundance of edible life around me and reconsider my response. I suppose it’s a reasonable question to ask why I would spend all of that time slaving away through grad school and then become a farmer. And I suppose it’s expensive to buy food processors, coffee makers, and other fancy “time-saving” devices since they do have to get shipped so far. But I don’t use those things and half of the food I ate today came from plants that multiply faster than I can replant them, so in my mind, it’s cheap to live here. I start to realize that the answer to Jacob’s question wasn’t really about living in tropical paradise but was actually about the economic system with which one chooses to be involved. It’s about living in a way that is ecologically, and therefore economically, sustainable versus living in a way that is not.

“Have you ever heard of ‘permaculture’,” I ask him. “It’s short for ‘permanent agriculture,’ or ‘permanent culture,’ since no culture can last very long if it’s agricultural practices are not sustainable. You see, I love the teaching and learning opportunities that academia provides, but ultimately, the most important thing to me is that I’m happy, and it doesn’t make me happy to know that while I may be at the cutting edge of science, I’m ultimately a slave to the whims of an economic system composed of a long series of weak, non-ecological and non-humane links. That’s why I live up the road at La’akea Permaculture Gardens.”

This stimulates more questions. Heather wants to know what I do at La’akea while Jacob wants to know what I mean by a “rusty and weak economic chain.”

“Well, at the permaculture farm I work about 20 hrs/wk, and the rest of the time I get to relax and play. All of the food I eat is organic and most of it is picked only a few steps from the kitchen, though some comes from the health-food store. I have no income or savings, no phone, and no connections to “the grid,” and everyday I enjoy a more relaxed, fulfilling, healthy life than I ever did, or could, before. Back in Champaign, even though I ate healthy food at the [Red Herring] vegetarian restaurant everyday and enjoyed the Champaign nightlife as much as anyone, it can’t compare with my present lifestyle. I notice a Campbell’s soup can in their car and say “Take this vegetable soup. Think about what it took to actually get it to you. Various farmers from many different places, possibly from 3rd world countries, had to grow the vegetables. They used pesticides and herbicides that not only might be hazardous to you and to the farmers but on a bigger scale, to the planet. It took petroleum to get it there, to use the equipment to plant and harvest, to distribute it, and then more again for you to get it from the store. In contrast, we grow our veggies in our garden using only organic materials (such as manure from chickens and fish) that come mostly from our land and work our farm to feed ourselves.”

Sensing that my econ friend doesn’t like the thought of chicken manure and thinks that I’m suggesting that we regress to primitive farming techniques, I add, “It takes less time and is healthier for me to walk to the garden than it takes for you to drive to the store, so if you compare the total energy and time inputs of the American way with those of the permaculture way, you’ll find that the so-called ‘technologically advanced’ agricultural system is primitively inefficient at best. I’d say the same thing for the entire American lifestyle for that matter.

“My life and work is surrounded by nature–I don’t have to work some lame job, buy into a health club to get in shape, spend time and money for vacations in nature, or buy products that were produced at the hands of oppressed people. And because I don’t need any fancy gadgets, I don’t have to work more to pay for those either. Simply put, permaculture means that over time as you let nature do the work for you, you’ll have more and more time to do the other things that are meaningful to you, whether it’s relating, creating, serving, or maybe even going to school for the pleasure of learning.”

Noting that I still have an attentive audience I continue about permaculture encompassing urban planning as well. I told them about Boneyard Creek and how permaculture principles would suggest that the waterway is a resource that could be used to improve the quality of life in Champaign, not a problem to “fix” with cement. And I mentioned the urban sprawl in south-east Urbana and in other cities; such sprawl might seem beneficial to developers and short-sighted policy-makers, but an intelligent analysis reveals that it will ultimately deplete the resources in the local community.

At this point, Heather mentions that while she agrees and recycles at home, she doesn’t have time to live this way while she’s in school. I sympathize, for I didn’t practice this lifestyle in CU either, even though I worked with planet- and people-friendly people and organizations through the Stone Soup Forum at the Common Ground Food Co-op. When someone used to suggest to me, “don’t buy that product, it’s a waste of packaging and it exploits workers,” it was difficult to take it seriously because that statement felt so far removed from life at school. However, I have found that when one’s life is surrounded by nature and the basic building blocks of survival, it becomes naturally difficult to participate in that which is destructive to human culture and the planet. In my experience, living and working here everyday using sustainable technology, I find myself believing that it’s very possible for humans to find a way to restore, rather than destroy, the planet and ourselves.

This may sound crazy or utopian to most people because we’ve been taught, even if we say that we don’t believe it, that there is a direct relationship between “having a real job” and being happy, where money is the link between the two. And we’ve also been taught that there’s some positive relationship between education and “that job” so off goes that next check to the university and that landlord, the value of which could buy anyone enough land and initial resources to have their own farmland in paradise.

We reach my destination as Jacob asks me whether I’m suggesting to quit school and take up farming. I smile and shrug my shoulders, thank them for the ride, and walk away considering my answer. My thinking is this: if you think that higher education is going to teach you what you need to know in order to get where you want in life, or if you truly enjoy the excellent learning opportunities that higher education provides, then the U of I is a great place to be. But if you’re in school to change the world and you’re having your doubts about whether 4 or 6 or 12 years of your life will significantly improve the planet or yourself, then my advice is to keep doubting; then, get involved in local organizations at the Illinois Disciples Foundation, like the Common Ground Food Co-op or PCSA, take a leap of faith, travel, and put yourself in a place where you’re living and working close to nature, the truly real world.

Here at La’akea ( and in many other places all over the world there are 2-4 week courses you can take that can show you how to live more sustainably. Check out our website ( and contact Dr. Nicholas Smith-Sebasto ( in the Dept. of Natural Resources to find out how you can get course credit while learning about permaculture in Hawai’i. Aloha!

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