Back when he was in college, Paul Kearsley was — well, let’s just say he wasn’t running with the cool crowd. While his classmates were doing keg stands on the weekends, he railed against consumptive American culture. When an Industrial Design professor asked Kearsley’s class to create a surveillance system, his peers designed camera networks for prisons and fancy homes. Kearsley devised a system that could monitor a forest, and the data used to make recommendations on improving wildlife habitat.

“I was on the outside,” says Kearsley, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. “I’d be asking, ‘Do we need a 2012 Honda Civic? What’s wrong with the 2011 Civic? Do we need more phones? What are the resources going into this? Where are they coming from? Who is this action hurting?’ A lot of the dialog stopped at ‘make it look cool,’ and I wanted to know more.”

Then, after graduation, someone lent Kearsley a 1,200-page tome that changed his life: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. As he read about a school of design devoted to creating productive, regenerative landscapes and resilient systems that “support life in all of its forms,” he knew he’d found his calling.