Kindred spirits: restorative justice and permaculture

Guest blog by Jonathan McRay

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A Liberation Ecology

Peacebuilding and sustainability often treat one another with suspicion. Both fields obscure the unbreakable lifeline between them with oversimplified arguments like social justice versus the environment, jobs versus nature preserves. Artificial distinctions between people and planet are dangerously misleading because our lives and all their conflict and health come from soil and sunlight. Economic inequity, political oppression, and historical wealth from slavery and ethnic cleansing are inseparable from the ruin of soil, forests, and water. All arise from structures and daily practices of exploitation and waste, supremacy and violence. Sustainability will sustain nothing without challenging and transforming power and privilege. Peacebuilding cannot build peace unless it includes redistributing land use and renewing energy sources. We need much more than superficial mediation and fossil fuel efficiency.

We cannot divorce the social and the ecological because the former is sustained by and immersed in the latter. This is my central point: social justice and land care are intimately interrelated. To speak of one is to necessarily speak of the other because:

Nature shapes culture: Human cultures are always sustained by the land community (soil, water, air, plants, and animals). We have to eat. This rule has no exceptions.

Everywhere is different: The land community is endlessly diverse and unique across soils and seasons. No place is exactly the same because each one has distinctive capabilities and limitations.

Attention is required: Observant care is necessary to tend to diverse contexts and conditions. There is no global policy for sustainability.

Culture shapes nature: These contexts and conditions include human histories of nurture and exploitation that shape how the land is used, who cares for it and owns it, how decisions are made, and how the wealth is shared or not.

Histories of exploitation are histories of transferred trauma, from deforestation to displacement. “Hurt people” hurt people and the land in a spiral of violence, forcefully represented by the industrial agricultural and prison systems.

Monoculture and mass incarceration are simple solutions defined by extraction of soil, water, and people; disconnection of cycles of nutrients and healing; waste of money, energy, and opportunities; enslavement of lifeforms and, constitutionally, of prisoners; and uniform answers to complex and contextual relationships. The same mindsets and systems that disproportionately imprison people of color are the same ones that deplete the earth and displace communities from their homelands. All the supposed benefits we receive (more food, less crime, efficient technology, and improved quality of life) have murky and unseen externalities that we export to be suffered faraway by inmates, overseas factory laborers, migrant workers, landfills, eroded fields, and dead zones. Rehabilitation – empowering good health and good skills – is impossible without reinhabitation – understanding ourselves as living within actual places on the earth and developing the skills to live there well.

Restorative justice and permaculture helpfully serve as particular ways to express general themes like peacebuilding, conflict transformation, land care, and sustainability. They need to unite because their cause is common. A liberation ecology of social justice and earth regeneration grows from polycultures of diversity and collaboration.

Fair Questions

In criminal justice systems, crimes are violations of laws and offenses against the state, not against those harmed. The legal system often atomizes and alienates those who were harmed and those who harmed: stories of context and trauma are rarely heard except to prosecute people called “offenders,” who are sent to prisons where they are further entrenched in destructive cycles and environments.

Justice, according to restorative justice, is not an eye for an eye or the antecedent to the American way. Instead, restorative justice is constituted by a set of questions, which are always more transformative than definitive answers:

  1. Who has been hurt and what are their needs?
  2. Whose obligation is it to meet those needs (and what are their needs?)
  3. Who else has been affected by this event?
  4. What is a participatory process that engages all those impacted to decide what needs to be done?

These questions can aid communities in strengthening themselves by giving decisions to those involved instead of passing power to groups uninvested in and unaffected by the outcomes.

Restorative justice’s name assumes more than its definition because we cannot restore justice to dead people or eroded soil. Even so, restorative justice is more about tending to the present by giving space for conflict and preventing harms from further destroying lives than about reinstating an unattainable past. Its questions maintain a dual focus on specific harms and the personal and socioeconomic conditions that incite violence. Permaculture suggests that these same questions can and should be asked about abused landscapes and watersheds.[1]

Everything is Related

Permaculture is a design strategy and land ethic for creating human communities that live well within their local ecosystems. Permaculture pays attention to the diversity, resilience, and renewal of ecological patterns in order to design regenerative agricultures and sustainable cultures. Rooted in ecology, systems theory, and subsistence cultures, permaculture is the design of functional relationships: learning how the gifts and needs of each element work with and benefit others. Everything is related and we must care for it.

Three ethics animate permaculture’s design principles and methods:

  • care for the earth– husband soil, forests, and water
  • care for people– look after self, kin, and community (and I add stranger)
  • fair share– set limits to production and consumption, and redistribute surplus into the first two ethics         

Permaculture recognizes that all our food, fuel, and fiber come from nutrient and water cycles, energy flows, and the miraculous plant-and-soil conversion of sunlight and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen. Dinner and democratic movements cannot happen without photosynthesis.

However, we can grow all the food we want but without just and transformative responses to conflict, cooperative ways of making decisions, and collective action for structural change, we will all be well-fed enemies. We cannot have transformative cultures without regenerative agricultures, but we will not have regenerative agricultures without transformative cultures: the stories, traditions, and livelihoods that help us live together for a long time.

Polyculture Partners

Restorative justice needs something like permaculture because localizing crime control is inadequate when our material existence depends on a privatizing global economy. Without understanding our ecological lives, restorative justice cannot deal with some of its most important questions: What are the root causes of the violating behavior in the offender, the community, and society? What are the social structures and relationships we desire?[2] Still, reinhabiting land will not alone resolve economic disparity and exploitation, racial oppression and forced assimilation, or denied self-determination and decision-making exclusion. Restorative justice helps permaculture understand dynamics of conflict and provides examples of inclusive decision-making; permaculture gives restorative justice a way out of remaining a temporary safe space that never challenges the economic and energetic foundations of society.

Restorative justice and permaculture together express a radical social and ecological justice that exposes the roots of the spiral of violence, reimagines the roots of our relationships and practices of care, and roots ourselves in places to cultivate these practices and return decisions and participation to communities. Permaculture designers and restorative justice practitioners are facilitators of health. Neither engineer solutions but instead guide delicate and intimate conversations about pain and possibilities.

Important critiques can be made of both restorative justice and permaculture. Both have been accused of cultural appropriation of indigenous worldviews, individualistic theories of social change, the omnipresent reality of failing original visions, and white-racialized rhetoric and practices. White permaculturists and restorative justice practitioners are often like many other white people: scared by the past and angered by their complicity to the point of denial. We are often colorblind to our own power and privilege.

However, restorative justice can offer vision and practices for transforming conflict, inclusive and participatory decision-making, recognizing and healing cycles of trauma, and accountability for the consequences of harm to others. Permaculture can offer ethics and design for transforming ourselves from parasites to members of the land community, participation in thriving forms of sustenance, recognizing and healing cycles of waste into fertility, and accountability for the consequences of using our only world. Both offer questions and ethics of caretaking for setting things as right as possible in relationship to one another. Both combat the industrial fabrication of waste: the idea that things and people are disposable. At their most liberating, permaculture and restorative justice are allies for community building and designing ecological and social systems that empower all voices and share the land’s abundance.


Jonathan McRay is a community peacebuilder and garden coordinator with New Community Project’s Vine and Fig, a collective that cultivates and celebrates works of mercy, social justice, and sustainable living through permaculture and food justice, hospitality and education, community organizing and contemplation. He worked in Palestine/Israel and Mozambique and has an MA from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Jonathan lives with his wife Rachelle and friends on a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

[1] A place defined by the common course of water (streams, rivers, rainfall, and underground aquifers).

[2] David Dyck, “Toward a Structurally Responsive Restorative Justice,” in Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective, edited by Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tift (New York: Routledge, 2006), 535.