Paul Wheaton: Building A Better World In Your Backyard

The data is clear: humans are overtaxing the world’s ecosystems at an accelerating rate.

How can society wean itself away from its business-as-usual practices of natural resource extraction and depletion? What steps can we take to be agents of positive, regenerative change?

Paul Wheaton, proprietor of the websites and, has just published a Kickstarter-funded book replete with solutions that most of us can start implementing today. It’s titled: Building A Better World In Your Backyard (Instead Of Being Angry At Bad Guys)

In this week’s podcast, Paul provides a romp through a wide swath of the insights within his book, from rocket mass heaters to going ‘poo-less’ to hugelkultur – with a large side helping of his infectious humour.

His main point is that there is a TON each of us can do to reduce our impact on nature while boosting our quality of life, while having fun along the way.

There was a woman here recently who said, "Well, I want to be part of the community, but I can't afford buying the land and getting started." And so, then I said, "Well, but you can consider PEP."

PEP stands for “Permaculture Experience according to Paul”. That would be me. I came up with the idea like four years ago. We’ve been fleshing it out, and now there’s a whole bunch of people that are getting certified for some of the smaller things and are working their way up. So, we’re just getting started on this.

Basically, the core of PEP is that there are these old people all over America–millions of them–sitting on 200 acres or more–and oftentimes, they have two houses on the property, they’ve got a damn fine truck and a damn fine tractor, and they’ve got like $90 to $100 grand in the bank, and they want to will it all to somebody. But they just need to have somebody worthy to will it to.

We’re trying to set up a program that’s totally free, so that way, you can build new experiences that would impress such a person into willing over these assets. You might think, “No one’s going to do that,” and it’s like, “Oh yeah, they will.” They hate their kids because their kids are going to just sell the land and pocket the money. But they think, “I put my life into this land, I want to see it continue on into the future being something farmesque. I don’t want my kids to just liquidate it. I want to see it move forward after I’m gone.” They so desperately want to find somebody who will continue caring for the land.

Let’s say there’s an 18-year-old and they’re contemplating going into college. How much debt do you take on to go to a public school these days? Something like $80 grand? It’s crazy. It’s like 10 or 20 times more than when I went to college.

Basically, they want to saddle you with $80 grand worth of debt. And then you’re stuck in the rat race. It takes 23 years on average to pay up your student loan. That’s amazing. Twenty-three years! When you’re 18 and you decide to go to college, then your commitment is greater than your lifespan to-date.

All right, so then what happens? Well for many, when you graduate, it turns out that you picked the wrong degree and no one wants to hire you–unless you get an MBA. But that’s two more years in school and a bigger ticket, too. But also, an MBA, that’s boring, man. That’s hard. You’ve got to stay awake in those classes.

Anyway, the key is like, alright, you’re 18 years old, you’ve added 23 years to that, now, you’ve got to finish paying off your house, and your car, and all these other debts you’ve accumulated–maybe you’ve got another ten years on that. So, what does that make you? If you add all that up, you’re 50-something years old. Now, you start looking at retirement. And what are you going to do when you retire? Maybe what you want to do is to get 200 acres with a house or two on it, et cetera, and retire living the permaculture lifestyle.

How about a shortcut? How about if you skip all that other stuff, you get PEP-board certified, it takes three years, and then you inherit 200 acres of land complete with the trucks and tractors, and whatever else–and a bit of coin–and you go right into the permaculture lifestyle? Ta-da!

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Paul Wheaton (86m:05s).

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The idea of “saving” the environment without making sacrifices… sure, it isn’t completely wrong, because so many people are doing destructive things that they can stop if they are just nudged to make small changes and so many people will never get on board with the reality that we have very serious environmental problems. But those of us who really want to slow to degradation of a once-green earth will have to make sacrifices, smaller houses for many, warmer temps indoors in the summer and cooler in the winter. Many of us are already doing it, of course. But there was some talk about Al Gore, who does deserve some credit for raising awareness, but isn’t he something of a hypocrite? And maybe that is what you were getting at in the interview: that he’s flying all over and doing it so frequently. The airlines are huge polluters - should I even have to point that out? Anyway, our true hero (heroine) Greta Thunberg is coming to America and she isn’t flying over, she’s taking a boat - refusing to be a hypocrite.

His focus on working individual solutions and small community projects resonates with me.
I had to stop focusing on the Malthusian scenerios in order to maintain my sanity and personal/family relationships.
One of the amazing things about being a soil farmer is that one helps create an evironment were life thrives. To me it is as much a spirutual act as a physical one.
Thanks again!

Trying to get old people to will you their land and assets. Cut their kids out of their inheritance? Wheaton says the kids are only going to “sell it and pocket the money”…so? Whoever buys it is obviously going to have an interest in working the land otherwise they wouldnt be buying 200 acres.
Better yet, the kids get something, and the new owners would have actually paid for it instead of flim-flamming the elderly out of it.
Any elderly person who doesn’t make these connections is obviously not in their right mind which should be grounds for legal action on the part of the kids against the perpetrators.

Another perspective on Greta’s trip:

Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s virtue signalling trip on a $4 million dollar yacht to lecture Americans about climate change will be more harmful to the environment than if she had flown via aircraft. Thunberg and her team set sail on the Malizia II for a voyage that will take 2 weeks to reach New York.
The mode of transport was deliberately chosen so Thunberg could relentlessly virtue signal about the evils of air travel. But the entire trip is a complete farce. As the German newspaper Taz points out, the yacht trip means more CO2 will be released into the atmosphere than if just Greta and her father had traveled by air because six members of her team have to fly back to Germany from New York.
“The sailing trip triggers at least six climate-damaging air travel across the Atlantic. If Thunberg had flown with her father, only two would have been necessary to come to New York,” reports Taz.
Indeed, a single flight from New York to Hamburg releases 1,800 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which equates to more than three quarters of what each person is entitled to a year if global warming is to be halted at 2 degrees. As James Delingpole asks, besides the rank hypocrisy of her attention grabbing yacht trip, how exactly did Thunberg come to be the lecturing face of the environmentalist movement?
“A lecture, furthermore, from a child who hasn’t finished her schooling, whose frontal lobes haven’t formed, who has no sense of humour, whose every utterance is the second-hand opinion of alarmist grown-ups whose doomsday claims she is completely unequipped to assess?” he writes.
But despite wall to wall positive press coverage, ordinary people just aren’t buying it. Source: greta-thunbergs-yacht-trip-america-more-harmful-environment-flying  
Whoever buys it is obviously going to have an interest in working the land otherwise they wouldnt be buying 200 acres.
That executive or surgeon will hire people to look after the landscaping but they won't be growing organic fruits and vegetables. Many of the more well-healed here in Spokane hire "gardeners" from Idaho. Hundreds of people are driving at least 30 miles roundtrip each weekday in old beaters to tend to the properties of those at the top of the Medical-Industrial Complex. I think the general idea is a good one. I'm considering transferring my 1/4 acre property in Spokane to a trust that will look after it once my wife and I die. One goal would be to avoid losing the property as the result of the outrageous medical costs that allow the aforementioned executives and surgeons (and dentists) to buy 200 acre properties.

I’ve never known anyone who bought a large parcel of land to live on who didnt have a real love of nature and an interest in working/maintaining the land. Moreover, somebody who actually BUYS a property has a real interest and incentive to maintain it. He has invested something of himself to get it, he has something of himself to LOSE by not maintaining it.
Ive seen what young idealistic hippy permaculturalists do. They get on to land, they have a million hair-brained ideas which become a million uncompleted projects, which turn into piles of junk when they run out of money. The town takes the land for taxes and it becomes an eye-soar for the whole community.

His advice on reducing fuel/energy use is really flawed - yah sure, 90% savings for using a "rocket mass heater", wood stoves 5 to 30% efficient. Where's the data? Not to mention if everyone switched to wood there would be massive deforestation.
"oh, don't use energy efficient light bulbs because they put out heat, they're just a scam" - ignoring how inefficient power plants are at converting heat into electricity and it's far more efficient to get heat from a furnace or heatpump than resistance heat. Not to mention how half the year in a cold climate the heat is completely wasted.
Ignoring an led or cfl bulb has the best return on investment on earth, getting the money back in savings in under 2 years.
"incandescent bulbs can be made to last a lot longer, there was a conspiracy to limit life to 1000 hours" -> lifespan is increased at the expense of light output so you need a higher wattage bulb.
Paul Wheaton seems to be running a cult to benefit himself and is selling people a bill of goods:
He's a charlatan and overall sounds like a horrible narcissistic person who's "always right" promoting himself. Apparently he has zero hands on experience
I'm disappointed because this paul wheaton guy wasn't questioned at all, chris just went along with what he was saying. Was this a paid promotion?

Thanks for this podcast, more like this would be great.

Incandescent bulbs were demonized for good reason. Running baseboard heaters is a huge waste anywhere short of the north pole. Geothermal heat pumps are far more efficient and also provide cooling in the summer.

Alright, thanks for telling me about that. Nevertheless, I get the impression that by ridiculing others for “virtue signaling” you are trying to give yourself room to say let’s continue the rape and pillage of the earth - full speed ahead, let BAU do what it has to do. Damn the environmental consequences.
No, I believe that we just because there aren’t many good leaders out there right now, that isn’t an excuse to just “take care of number one” or say to yourself you’re doing enough as long as you take care of your own family. The upcoming financial crisis - especially if it comes in the form of a sudden crash - might be a great opportunity for society to move away from Business As Usual. As people who are seeing it coming, we’re the ones that potentially can lead the way.

When I heard about his kickstarter and book, likely here ( ? ) I was very enthusiastic. Looking at the table of contents and information on the kickstarter site, I bought in. Like his talk here, it sounds like it is good. Topics, links to more information, etc… Unfortunately, I can no longer recommend it. I bought in at a level where I have read the prepublished book, and followed the whole PEP thing on the site, and it is not what it could have been. If you want a book, let me know, as I have quite a few coming my way and I cannot in all good conscience give them out to promote change. A guess the best way to describe the book is that it is self-referential, self-promoting, for sure. But, it is this way as it grew out of discussions on the permies forum, so the idea seems to have been that they wanted to disseminate those ideas that were their favorites there to a broader audience. Which is different than looking at the topics and saying, what is the best way to teach this, or the most universal examples, or even how people could find this out.
First, the book. The idea of a book with an overview, a few examples, and links to more information is sound. But there are no links to further information, it is all self-referential. Every single link is to a thread on the Permies web site. That is all. I explored a few of the links, as if I were a new reader of these ideas, and can attest that this is not a good way to get the information. It is fine to have a forum, but a forum is not a spot for reading for facts on topics. There are MANY good links that could have been used on various topics, but that wasnt the point of the book I guess. SO, a forum thread is going to have alot of opinions, and maybe the correct facts. Maybe not. This is especially hard on the permies forum as no-one can respond and say that an idea is incorrect, so an inexperienced person cannot tell the difference.
Secondly, the topics as shown in the table of contents are appropriate, but the coverage isnt there. Often I would say, you get to a topic area and there is no “there” there, such as the part on harvesting electricity in your backyard. No coverage of passive heating or cooling, or of solar hot water. While there is nothing wrong with mentioning his idea of WOFATI as a natural building type, all other existing natural building methods are shunted aside as inferior while the WOFATI may work out, it is very new and doesnt have a track record yet it is experiemntal. So, alot of good ways to save teh world in your backyard not mentioned, but pages on his thing about loving incandescent light bulbs.
I dont have time to go on.
PEP. Interesting idea, people like getting badges and checking off lists and having small goals, etc… I thought, maybe the recipients of these books can try things out there. Again, this is VERY heavily weighed onto Paul’s pet peeves. And, he would likely say that’s why it is PEP – Permaculture Experience Paul, go make your own. Fair enough, but that doesnt make it universal enough to be some kind of thing that is going to make you well rounded and show others you can work on their land . But, it is not that it is cold weather, it is that it incorporates only the way he would have it done on his property. For example, the only way to deal with human waste would be the way he does it on his property, which is not a very good system to begin with ( fecal matter sealed up in plastic trash cans to compost, but in Montana that means it is not enough cu ft to actually compost even over a year, so…). Other badge bits of course are pretty universal. I am mixed about it, it could give some good ideas of things to try, seeing a list of things is helpful to people, and there are links to show how to do these things, links that leave permies even. But to get very far along you would likely need to go to his place and do many things his way.
All the extras that we got from the kickstarter are thru the permies site, I had no idea. SO, the only way to watch that video is to be a member of permies, receive mailing list mailings from permies, etc… luckily, I was able to download some of the things, so if I am kicked off I can read them on my computer. But, I realy had no idea when I signed up for the kickstarter how tightly all of this was to the one personality and one way to do things and to only Permies Forum as a source.
There is more, but I dont have time. I could very well be doxxed by writing this much here, criticism is not allowed you know, if I am, I will report back.

Is a very good thing for many people. He did not invent this, he gives space for people to keep experimenting with it, which is good.
They work well. They realy are cheap and efficient. Now, what is efficient ? As someone who heats with wood, it means am I comfortably warm and how many cords did I burn this winter ? People with rocket mass heaters realy do stay warm and use alot less wood.
Has this been measured ? Yes, people report back and say I used to use XX amount of wood, I switched out to this rocket mass heater and I now use xx amount. That is the data. I have been in places that have them. They are clean burning, so much so that they are legal in places in Oregon now, and Oregon is VERY fussy on air pollution. Oregon did that based on data, real measurements.
I have a protable rocket stove for cooking. Store bought. It is AMAZING how little wood it uses to heat a large pot of water. Just sticks off the ground, realy.
SO, you dont need to trust Paul on this, go read others, go watch you tube videos by others as you likely cant experience them in person as I have.

I agree that this scenario of his is far fetched. Now, people can and do let people come and work their land, but that is different than giving it to them. I dont think he should be spreading hype that this is likely or desirable. I find that people are often entitled enough, and value their efforts often more than what is provides. What I mean is, helping on the land is good, but that is usually not gaining enough around here to come close to what money the actual property owner has to pay out every month for mrtgage and property tax. So, letting someone garden on the land as you are too busy working to pay the bills on it or now too old can be nice for both, but should not have any entitlement expectations since it took ALOT more than that to buy, fix etc… the land for all the years previous

I get the impression that by ridiculing others for “virtue signaling” you are trying to give yourself room to say let’s continue the rape and pillage of the earth...
Au contraire. My wife and I have a footprint that is less than 1. This is a consequence of not having children, no personal vehicle since 2011, no flights since 2004, small house, growing much of our own food. No washer and dryer. I walk or cycle to the laundromat once a month and do 2 loads of laundry. I suppose in a way this voluntary austerity is a form of virtue signaling. However, my life is considerably better than when I was paid well to fly here, there, and everywhere. It should be mentioned that I don't subscribe to the Delingpole view that man does not impact his environment. If a person can't look around and see that we are severely impacting our environment, he or she is blind.

I have watched this before, and it is compelling. I found it after I had already bought into the kickstarter though !
Go look at other videos by the fouch family, for example their rocket mass heater.

I have yet to listen to the podcast, but am very much looking forward to it! Thanks Chris and Adam for getting Paul on here.
I wanted to make a comment right now about the whole PEP program Paul is trying to get going. Some time back on my own blog I did an entry about changes I see happening in education. As part of that I noted that an element that seems to be missing, but is ripe to be developed is some method of individual accreditation that can verify people have actually gained skills instead of our current system of institutional accreditation. I see Paul’s PEP project as being an early example of trying to do just this and thus I’m highly intrigued to see where it goes, what ends up working and what doesn’t. As brushhog was noting there is a tendency, or least expectation of, idealistic hippy permaculturalists going into something all starry eyed but lacking the skills and/or discipline to do the real work. What his PEP program aims to do is to help provide the skills, and weed out those who really aren’t disciplined enough to stick with it. It is to provide individual accreditation letting anyone interested in working with, or providing land to, such people that someone really has and can do the work needed.
Personally I doubt there are really hoards of aging farmers looking to will their land to young permaculturists, but I don’t really see that as a point of it all. I see this as a means to gain skills and provide some proof to others that you did the work, with a visible portfolio of what you’ve done that other interested parties could then review when evaluating you for whatever they are interested in your skills for.
I’m excited to listen to the podcast and see just where all the conversation romped off to!

There’s a lot to wade into here, but I’ll say this; Paul is a polarizing figure.
Some people really like and admire him, some really hate his style.
The Fouch family, FWIW, are also a complex story. They asked Paul to attend one of his boot camps for free. Didn’t want to pay. Said they had a big Youtube channel, so that would be compensation. He let them come for free, despite reservations. They were trouble the whole time. Then they complained about it.
After many years peripherally associated with the alt-hippy space I can tell you from my direct experience that the people who can’t or don’t want to pay are quite often the most difficult. Not always, but enough to make it “a thing.”
Often they come with sky-high expectations over what they “are owed” (your time, your complete adherence to their gluten/perfume/noise/electromagnetic/etc sensitivity) coupled to a rock-bottom personal work ethic. Again, not all of them, but enough that it’s a thing.
Paul said to me (after the interview recording stopped) this is how the Fouch’s showed up. Apparently they were very, very difficult people, both in their intra (they screamed at each other constantly) and interpersonal dynamics.
So I’m taking everything here with a big grain of salt.
I also find it weird just how many of the ‘big names’ in permaculture seem to hate each other. What is that all about? Does it draw a certain type? Is it that they are deep-down worried that somehow it will all be exposed as BS so it’s best to keep pointing out how the other guy (and it’s mostly guys right now) has it all wrong? Is it just the case that there is a right way and a wrong way and those with the right way really hate those with the wrong way screwing it all up?
I don’t know, but it bothers me. Seems we should all be allies and trying to make the pie bigger rather than trying to smash the other guy’s pie.
Next, it is always my case that I take what I can from each teacher and leave the rest. I don’t have to ascribe 100% to Paul’s personal style, quirks and approaches to find that he’s gathered some very useful things over at
Adam and I are acutely aware of what happens when discontented people arrive in your community armed with a singular skill; taking things apart.
They did not build the site or community, and maybe haven’t built anything in their lives, or taken real risks, nor have they put their reputation on the line by daring to try and lead something. But, boy, do they ever know all about how you are doing it all wrong.
Which is a different thing from constructive criticism. It’s easy to tell the difference. The former comes disguised as constructive but actually boils down to “here are all the ways you are doing things wrong, I expect you to fix them for me.” The latter says “Here are some improvements that can be made, and I’m willing to help by doing X, Y and Z. If you agree, I can get to them by ____.”
One says “here, have my monkey” while the other says “I know how to do this and I’m going to carry that load because this is important.”
I’ve often said that navigating the future is going to require us to make mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. I fully expect a ton of experiments in culture, community and permaculture to start and fail.
The only true failure will be if we simply chuck the whole experiment out the window and fail to learn anything from it, even if that’s an insight that says “nope, not that way.”
There is no failure except a failure to learn.
Paul is at least trying. He’s taking risks. I see a lot of people ready to throw the whole thing out because he’s not doing it the right way, which often boils down to their way.
Well, then, great! There’s a very simple solution for that! Be inspired by Paul’s weaknesses and faults! Take a risk, start something and do it your way.
But please, do not tear something down and then do nothing. Because that is pure, abject failure and we haven’t got time for that.
Meanwhile, my key takeaways from the Wheaton podcasts are these (coming in a longer piece too):

  • Rocket mass stoves are a real thing, and worth exploring in detail
  • Inputs to my garden from outside are not worth risking.
  • People are hungry to do positive things
  • Giving people badges and checklists and public markers of their progress and success are motivational
Bottom line: There's always something to learn from someone. My request: Is there any way we can put down our weapons to focus instead on the things that work? I was kind of hoping for this comment thread to be about solutions that work and people sharing their own success stories and inspirations. Paul Wheaton is not everybody's cup of tea. Okay, fine. What can we learn anyways, and what are your favorite sources and links?

You’re alright in my book, Matt Holbert.
So maybe we DO have good leaders nowadays, they just aren’t the ones that get hyped in the media.

I’m not a big fan of Paul’s delivery and some of his comments but the message is good. You should consider interviewing Rob Avis of Adaptive Habitat, he is an engineer by training and permaculture designer by trade now. He brings a very researched and polished message. He is also a big fan of Peak Prosperity. In currently taking his land design course and trying to be part of the solution!