For those engaged in Permaculture design and teaching there is a comforting story we tell ourselves that goes something like this, “Awareness of Permaculture is spreading rapidly in the mainstream and it doesn’t draw the deep criticism of the other activist movements because it is so positive. It’s about creating genuine solutions to the great challenges of our time.” Yet could it be that a more fundamental reason why Permaculture has not drawn serious criticism is that it does not pose a significant challenge to the status quo? At least in the way it has been largely taught and practiced to date.
Was Permaculture design ever intended as a holistic alternative to our energy intensive, socially exploitative and ecologically destructive ways of living on this finite planet? For those familiar with the works of co-originators Bill Mollison and David Holmgren the short answer to this is an emphatic yes!
Personally I believe the underpinning ethics and principles have the power to be revolutionary. My contention is that one reason for limited successes in achieving transformative change relate to insufficient attention given by Permaculture teachers and practitioners to the domains of economic systems and governance models. There’s a reason for this and it’s not entirely intentional.
At an individual level it is hard to avoid becoming deeply enmeshed in the current neoliberal growth-dependent economic system, burdened by interest bearing debt, mortgages and so on. Consequently we become psychologically trapped by the sense of needing to expand our earning capacity to achieve ‘financial security’. It then becomes uncomfortable to entertain any alternatives to this economic model and we constrain our Permaculture endeavours to being niche ‘.com.au’ enterprises competing in an unchallenged neoliberal marketplace. For many others the trap of deep economic ties to the present systems result in Permaculture activities being indefinitely relegated to that of a hobbyist pursuit, with little opportunity to develop projects on our own site or within our local communities. I’m sure many of you have experienced a sense of frustration over such circumstances.
On reflection I have observed two broad approaches to how we might forge a path forward in response to such challenges. Firstly we can take actions to reorient existing economic instruments to align more closely with the ethics of Permaculture. Secondly we can engage in exploring alternative economic systems and mechanisms for meeting our needs.
Possibly the most important and most liberating strategy for engaging in new economic thinking is to minimise, or preferably avoid, the time we spend in debt.
Reorienting existing structures
Investing in Permaculture
A few years ago a fellow Permaculture teacher and mentor of mine, Rick Coleman, looked at a property that was for sale in Penguin in northwest Tasmania and suggested that it would be a fantastic proposition for a Permaculture teaching and demonstration site. A 2 acre site, accessible by public transport, north facing, fertile soil, established buildings, fruit trees, a productive avocado tree, but, when he mentioned the price tag of well over a half million dollars, those of us in the room simply laughed off the prospect.
Three years later the property (now known as the RESEED Centre) has been purchased and we’re steadily realising the potential to create a Permaculture teaching and demonstration site with the first full PDC being hosted on site this summer. The strategy was ultimately quite straightforward. Firstly there was a convergence of individuals who could see the potential of the property and had a shared vision of a more sustainable future for our children. Individually none of us had any prospect of gaining the finance to purchase the site, we needed to think collectively. After exploring our options it became apparent that we could pool our superannuation dollars to create self managed superannuation funds (1) and this combined with some additional investment enabled us to purchase the site and avoid going into debt. Already you might be thinking about the risks involved in such a venture. This venture has already been a significant learning journey for all involved, though we sleep better at night knowing that we are aligning whatever financial means we have to the values we hold.
The alternative would be that the property was sold to wealthy property developers to be subdivided and paved over for McMansions and we would still be dreaming about ways to contribute to a more sustainable future.
I acknowledge that such a venture may seem too great for you to consider at this time, though there are transitional steps worth exploring such as supporting one of the wholly ethical funds. Evidently many are already making this choice with Australian Ethical Investments reporting a doubling of new memberships in this calendar year. With just over 70% of Australians holding a superannuation account there is incredible potential to move the sustainability agenda forward.
In the domain of reorienting existing economic structures you may be inspired by the thought of a dedicated Permaculture Credit Union (2), which currently exists in New Mexico. Among the investments of the credit union there have been micro-loans to support the establishment of organic farms or for homeowners wishing to build off-grid homes. One of the entry requirements is that you have completed a PDC, member to a Permaculture institute or support the Permaculture Ethics.
Rethinking the means by which we meet our needs
Stepping off the ‘hedonic treadmill’
Striving for sustainability demands that we go well beyond reorienting existing economic structures and devote effort to redesign the economic systems. To do this requires stepping off the “hedonic treadmill,” the cycle of “working more, in jobs we may not like, to be able to afford more within an economic system that falters if we don’t consume enough.” (3)
This is a challenge in our affluent societies where so much of our everyday existence has been monetised. For example, going back to the time before the mobile communications revolution, conversation with our peers was free or of minimal cost. Today many people (young and old) rack up considerable debt in the name of staying connected. We’re conditioned to thinking that money is the only vehicle by which we meet our daily needs.
Here I would present the Permablitz movement as a valuable strategy, as described in a recent article by Christian Parr . Consciously designed, the process incorporates sharing of skills, time exchange, community sourced materials and community building with the potential to be a minimal financial occasion, where ‘money is no object’. The Permablitzed site still requires an investment of time and effort to maintain but ultimately moves the residents toward greater self-reliance and reduced dependence on monetised living.
Of course there may always be ventures that require a larger amount of initial financial investment in order to get established. Positively the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ in 2008 became a driver for a dramatic increase in the number of organisations and social enterprises exploring alternative economic structures and systems. As an example, Community Sourced Capital (4) has magnified the concept of crowd funding to enable local communities to invest in ways that promote the re-establishment of locally owned businesses.
Fundamentally these strategies and many others require a shift in our thinking to cooperative and collaborative ways of meeting our needs and achieving more with what resources we do have. To discover this mental shift here’s a dinner table exercise you may like to try with friends.
Take it in turn to share your thoughts on the question, “If I had one million dollars, what would I invest this in to make the world a better place?’, Repeat this with diminishing amounts of $1,000 and then $100. Write the ideas down and keep them handy for future conversations.
Without preempting the discussion I suggest many would initially baulk at the idea of discussing what they would do with a million dollars and feel much more comfortable discussing smaller amounts that seem within reach. One reason most baulk at such large amounts is that we have been conditioned to think as individuals, with a competitive mindset that considers only the finances or resources available to ourselves, or our immediate family. The basis for this exercise comes from the idea of loan or gifting circles, (5) where a collaborative approach replaces the I with we and this opens up a whole host of possibilities.
In conclusion, food and fiber production is understandably the ‘easy sell’ aspect of Permaculture. It is tangible and provides for some of our most basic needs, which is inherently satisfying. Conversely, thinking about how we might redesign our economic systems is perceived as taxing on our intellectual reserves, the products are not immediately tangible and it raises many ethical dilemmas we may not be willing to contemplate. However, without sufficient attention to economics this will always remain the Achilles heel of those working to create an ecologically sustainable and socially just presence on the planet.
Researching for this article revealed many more exciting initiatives and new economic approaches. If the article has sparked your interest I would encourage you to make contact with myself or other Permaculture designers in order to keep the conversations going. From my own experience real change is possible when we genuinely commit ourselves to meaningful conversations.
1 – http://www.ato.gov.au/Super/Self-managed-super-funds/
4 – http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-08-06/like-shopping-at-local-businesses-now-you-can-invest-in-them-too
5 – http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-08-22/gifting-circles-and-the-monetization-of-everything