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The following article originally appeared in The Permaculture Activist, #57.

An Educational Paradigm for Global Regeneration:
Gaia University
by Tami Brunk

Visualize the planet, drifting through space. Perhaps you will see astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s vision: a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery.

Most likely though, this picture will be marred by the nightmare images of rapidly melting glaciers, skeletal coral reefs and smoking, barren landscapes where once were rainforests. You might project into the future, imagining widespread warfare and desperate ravaging of earth’s remaining resources as oil supplies peak and rapidly dwindle.

Look closer. When we do, we will also see a strong, natural impulse toward renewal. In every pocket where the Earth has been left alone, it is regenerating its life systems. And miraculously enough, we’ll see that people, too, are actors in this regeneration process, nourishing vibrant human communities and slowly restoring severely exploited landscapes.

Gaia University, a new decentralized, action-learning-based University, was founded last fall in order to support and strengthen these hopeful trends. Permaculturists, ecovillage founders, green technology innovators and other leaders in the sustainability field are now invited to partner with GU to offer Bachelors and Masters degrees, with accreditation formally recognized in both the USA and UK, to the world changers of tomorrow.

For over ten years, leaders in the permaculture and ecovillage movements have envisioned just such an institution, but it took the joint brainpower of visionaries Liora Adler and Andy Langford to pull it together. The two met at an ecovillage educators forum at Findhorn, Scotland in early 2004. This seemingly chance encounter generated a spirited dialogue around development of a global university, through expansion of the Permaculture WorkNet Diploma Program Andy had initiated 12 years earlier. In the months following, Liora and Andy teamed up to bring what had been a nebulous concept into a serious institution of higher learning.

They charted a pathway to accreditation though IMCA (International Management Centers Association) and Revans University–the only action-learning university in the world. In October of 2004, Gaia University was incorporated in Colorado.

It would be difficult to imagine a better-suited pair to manifest this ambitious project. Liora has over thirty years experience with ecovillages and the establishment of global networks. She was co-founder, in 1982, of Huehuecoytl, an artisan’s ecoaldea in the volcanic highlands of Central Mexico. In 1996 she helped to launch la Caravana, a nomadic ecovillage of international artists traversing Latin America from North to South. In the years following, she has played an instrumental role in establishing, promoting, and strengthening both the Ecovillage Network of the Americas and the Global Ecovillage Network.

Andy initiated permaculture teaching in the UK starting in 1985 and, together with colleagues in the Permaculture Association of Britain, has initiated training of more than 3,000 permaculture designers. Since 1993 he has been developing and refining the Permaculture Diploma WorkNet, which has awarded 160 diplomas to students, mostly in Europe. The WorkNet is widely regarded as the standard for European permaculture education. Andy refers to the Gaia University collaboration as Version 5.0 of the WorkNet System.

Andy and Liora envision Gaia U’s potential curriculum as broad enough to include the following: Permaculture, Ecovillage Design, Peace Studies, Ecocities, Appropriate Technology, Traditional Wisdom, Eco-health, Sustainable Economics, Bioregionalism, Life Transitions, Natural Building, Social Communication, Art for Social Change, and many other as-yet-to-be-developed areas of study.

Action learning is central to Gaia University’s methodology. It is a back-to-the-roots alternative to standard University learning. It offers a sophisticated, nurturing framework for students–called associates–to explore their area of interest, without demanding that they know precisely where they’re headed from the outset or have any fixed concept of where they will wind up. Within a network of supportive and knowledgeable faculty, students are given the tools to investigate, reflect, and to “crash around a bit” in the classic pattern of inquiry dating back thousands of years (See Action Learning Diagram).

Action Learning Sets of students will have access to a broad range of support consisting of Workshop Providers, Set Advisors, Internal Reviewers, Specialist Advisors, and an External Reviewer. A Regional Coordinator develops the overall regional capacity, linking associates with these individuals, many of whom will work in a given region, but some of whom will likely tutor and mentor from afar by phone and e-mail.

In addition to faculty support, each associate will be part of a Learning Guild of three to five peers, with whom they will meet regularly to refine and deepen their pathway through a system of directed inquiry: what is going well for me as an action learner? What is difficult? What are my long-term goals and visions? What are my next achievable steps?

Liora and Andy’s expected students will likely be from the divergent population. Adler sees a portion of this group as young people who are fed up with the traditional, spoon-fed, sit-in-a-classroom-while-you’re-being-lectured-to environment. “Perhaps,” she says, “they have another kind of genius that could be cultivated in a different methodology.” The population Gaia University is reaching out to will already share much of the vision contained in the sustainability movement.

Liora believes that an estimated six percent of the general population fits into this category. “Six percent of six billion is a lot of people–we’ll start with those” says Adler. Students can take an informal or formal route toward their degrees, the primary difference being the commitment to deadlines. Formal learners will be expected to work to a set timetable with their learning group while informal degree earners can work at their own pace. While degree programs will vary widely depending on area of study and the structure of a given regional center, the basic outline of a formal Bachelors degree should look something like this:

Year 1: Associates focuses on theory and coursework and setting up projects. Must acquire 80-100 ‘classroom hours’–through workshops and study of theory with partners in GU’s global network. While students can choose from a near-limitless array of courses, they will be required to take ‘Regeneration 101’ which will cover core concepts in sustainable design sciences such as peak oil, permaculture, footprint analysis and the ethics of right livelihood. Students will identify projects that meet their own development needs and meet the needs of a sponsoring organization – these projects are the core of an action learning pathway.

Year 2: Associates will embark on their action learning pathway, working closely with their Learning Guild, Set Adviser and Internal Reviewer (project mentor), as they begin articulating and engaging with their project design. Students will learn as they go, as they progress through the projects that highlight their areas of ignorance. Technical Advisers are on hand to assist.

Year 3: Associates’ projects will move through implementation towards completion; Project reports (written, videotaped, or maybe sung and danced) will be submitted to an internal reviewer and, finally an external reviewer, both of whom must accept the project as complete in order for an associate to receive their degree.

One potential stumbling block for GU students in the US will be their ineligibility to apply for federal aid, given the fact that accreditation is achieved through a non-US institution. To overcome this obstacle, Andy and Liora hope to develop a foundation for students with lesser resources, most of which will be directed toward students in economically impoverished regions of the world. However the fact is that a degree from GU costs substantially less than that acquired through a university in the US or Europe. In addition, the founders are working with the Permaculture Credit Union to develop a student loan facility.

A unique feature of Gaia, which is intended to benefit the many individuals who have already contributed significant time and energy within their organizations yet lack formal accreditation is the credit map system, whereby up to 1/3 of an associate’s credits can be derived from previous experience. Leaders in the sustainability fields who wish to partner with Gaia University are encouraged to use the credit map option in order to pursue an accelerated Masters (or potentially Doctoral) degree.

Remaining work toward a degree could act as the framework for clarifying goals and objectives, fine-tuning of existing programs, developing regional centers, developing strategic business plans, or playing a role in researching and sharing effective models for the rest of the network. Andy and Liora both see Gaia University’s role in building learning infrastructure for the sustainability movement as vital and expect it to“pulse better focus and performance throughout the networks” They hope to nudge ecovillages, permaculture initiatives, and holistic health centers closer to their full potential.

In April, Andy and Liora traveled to The Farm, a 34-year-old intentional community in central Tennessee, to begin development of the first regional center or ‘campus’ in Gaia University’s global network. In the months following, a flurry of meetings and visioning sessions have taken place, as seasoned pioneers in the fields of permaculture, appropriate technologies, ecovillage design, and alternate health are hammering out various curricula, a common legal framework, and faculty structure. GU plans to offer accredited courses starting in January of 2006. Numerous other communities have expressed interest in establishing their own regional centers.

At the recent International Permaculture Convergence (IPC7) in Croatia there was much support for the development of Gaia University. Bill Mollison, Declan Kennedy, Peter Bane, Ali Sharif, Richard Wade and many others expressed their particular visions of how GU might evolve in their regions and further the growth of the permaculture movement.

Information about Gaia University is now available on its beta website, www.gaiauniversity.org. Next steps include establishing regional centers; development of ‘Regeneration 101’ and refinement of the University’s organizational structure through the website’s feedback system–what Liora refers to as “growing tip led organization where the branches, new-growth and cross-fertilization happen out there.”

If you are interested in participating as a workshop provider, associate, or funder, or if you’d like to initiate development of a regional center, first carefully peruse the website. Then contact GU directly at info@gaiauniversity.org.

“We have all been consistently ridiculed for having visions,” notes Andy. “We’ve been told, ‘you can afford to be idealistic when you’re young, but when you get out into the real world, you’ll forget all that,’ So our visions of how we’d like to see the world become a better place get squashed.”

“Some of us, though, have managed to re-emerge our idealism and our visioning ability. It is up to us,” he says, “to create the safe place for other people to practice. There’s the true vision for Gaia University: opening up our visioning capacity, learning the skills we need to meet the coming challenges, creating a sustainable world and allowing the Earth to regenerate.” *

Andy Langford is a long term activist with permaculture in Britain and Northern Europe. He worked up the early British permaculture teaching resource (supported by Lea Harrison of Australia and, later, George Sobol), organised and taught design courses and ran significant design projects for Local Government and private clients. Andy is an enthusiast for inclusive learning, decision making and action methods and has facilitated Future Searches, Open Space Technology and Planning for Real events. He wrote "Designing Productive Meetings and Events" (1997, SODC) and trained several groups of citizen facilitators in these methods during the 90's Local Agenda 21 boom. He is a principal architect of the Permaculture Diploma WorkNet, an innovative, University without Walls conception, which offers trained support to people using action learning to gain their Diplomas of Applied Permaculture Design. Andy currently lives at Braziers Park, an experimental residential project designed to integrate the efforts of people with 'unlike minds'. He has been working to assist the transformation of this 1950's inspirational project to 21st Century needs, to include permaculture, leaderful organisation and a commonwealth of micro-enterpises.

Liora Adler is a global leader in the ecovillage movement and from 1999-2003 served on the Board of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). She currently serves on its International Advisory Board and is UN Representative. She is a social activist, communicator, facilitator and specialist in the consensus decision making process, psychologist, holistic nutritionist, event organizer, photographer, dancer and lover of life. Co-founder of the ecovillage Huehuecoyotl in Mexico and la Caravana Arcoiris por la Paz - a mobile ecovillage and training center traveling through Central and South America;Associate of the International Institute of Facilitation and Consensus; Representative of the Caribbean Region of the Ecovillage Network of the Americas; and Vice-President of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology.
For the last 35 years Liora has been active in movements to promote ecovillages, biorregionalism and global consciousness. She has been helpful in the creation of ecovillage and permaculture networks in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Cuba. She has given workshops and conferences in Consensus Decision Making, Facilitation, Sacred Communication, Leadership Skills, Holistic Nutrition, Women's Health and Strategies for Planetary Change. Liora coordinated the Workshops for Sustainable Living projects in Colombia and Ecuador in 2000-1 and the Women's Peace Village Project in Ecuador in June 2002 and in 2003 served as Coordinator for the Call of the Condor Gathering in Peru in which 800 representatives from ecological, spiritual, indigenous, peace and holistic health movements gathered to create a ceremonial peace village and celebrate the vernal Equinox at Machu Picchu.  Back to top

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