Archive for June, 2009

Permaculture Future? Part II

Sharon June 30th, 2009

Since my previous post on this subject has gotten so much interesting discussion going, I figured I’d stick with the momentum, rather than have another one of my planned multiple posts turn into a singleton because I’m like a magpie, easily distracted by shiny new subjects ;-) .

I should be clear about something here - part of the reason I’m bothering to critique something that I am resolutely on the side of is this - I take it seriously.  I believe that at this moment, permaculture groups and the Transition movement represent quite honestly the only game in town for an *organized* set of strategies for dealing with our present crisis  - that is, ultimately, Transition and permaculture are the public face of our adaptive strategies.   If they can’t do the work of helping us adapt, then we either need to make new strategies or make these work - and we don’t have a lot of time to figure it out.  To some degree, I believe this is probably unfair to the permaculture movement as a whole - that is, they didn’t ask to be ”the last best chance for survival.”  That’s a big burden to stick on them.  It may, unfortunately, also be at least partly true, and it is not an accident - many people have been offering up permaculture as the best possible response to the Long Emergency for some time.

Now it should also be understood that my doubts about permaculture are not doubts about the basic work permaculturists advocate - that is, I don’t think there’s any question that if we all actually practiced and lived permaculture it would go an awfully long way to actually saving the world.   Nor do I intend any personal criticism of permaculturists, many of whom are my friends, many of whom I admire, and who I’d probably like to be one of - at least on most days ;-) . My question is different - it is whether permaculture as a movement with a public face, and as it is being practiced and perceived in the mainstream right now has the tools to attract enough people and respond fast enough to our collective crisis - not to fix it, we’re long past that - but to do the most good possible for a lot of people who are facing a very bad situation.

I personally do not give a rat’s patootie about much of anything other than success on this front.  That is, I think that if whatever strategies we who know what’s coming actually field are not successful - as successful as possible given the rotten circumstances we have to work with - it doesn’t matter whether the people doing it are really right.  If I don’t think they can be successful - and by successful I mean saving lives and mitigating harm - I will put my energies elsewhere, and advocate others do the same.  And, vice versa, I will happily table most of my disagreements, suck up my distastes and work with just about anyone who doesn’t hit my “evil” button if it saves people’s lives, feeds the hungry, warms the cold, gives succor to the sick or any of that.  That is, I personally will politely and quietly roll my eyes while we stand in the circle sharing our feelings, but I will do it, and far less palatable things, if it gets us forward in productive ways - more forward than anything else.  Convince me it does, and I’m your woman.

Which means that the assumptions I start with are these - that what matters most is maximum effectiveness of the right strategies.  Thus, I think those who argue I just don’t fully understand permaculture are probably missing the point - I’ve been studying permaculture on and off since the early 1990s, have known many permaculturists and met with many permaculture groups. It may well be that I’m not getting it all right, but in the end, the truth of things is probably less important than how things are perceived, and I think it is fair to say that if I don’t “get it” that either I’m extremely obtuse (definitely possible) or there’s a problem with how permaculture is presented.

Or, permaculture’s presentation has not yet caught up to its “last best hope for survival” reality - this, I suspect is  a large part of the truth - and always is true of alternative cultures, is when they hit the mainstream, they are often unprepared for their own success, or potential success.  I do permaculture the credit of assuming that first, it could be a success under the right circumstances, and also assuming that those who have advanced permaculture as a responsive strategy to our crisis, are, well, right - but that means a certain amount of growing pains as one moves from an alternate culture to something else.

I also assume that we have very little time, and that there is too much work for small communities - that we need all hands on deck to get the best possible outcomes.  Thus, my concern with public perceptions of permaculture - to me it only sort of matters whether they are right, what matters is that negative ones be overcome.

Finally, I also assume one other thing - as things begin getting difficult, more alternatives, many of them probably really bad, will start emerging.  The reality is all of life is about how we tell our stories.  The story of peak oil and climate change, of our financial crisis are already being told by a lot of people in a lot of different ways.  Dominant narratives will emerge, and some of them will not be productive - in fact, some of them will be downright dangerous, as in Britain where far-rightists are already using peak oil as a justification for the implementation of policies.  There is going to be a vast grab for explanations and visions of the future.

What worries me is the American version of Hezbollah, which I suspect will someday emerge - that is, a deeply violent and destructive subculture, complete with scapegoats and a compelling story for the angry and frightened mainstream about who to blame, along with practical institutions like hospitals, schools and rescue stations for gaining the loyalty of the victims of our collective crisis.  Difficult times produce a willingness to accept things that are unacceptable in other times - the last great economic crisis, for example, resulted in the last rise of the popular left in the US, which is heartening, and worldwide, a move towards fascism, which is not. 

At this moment, Transition and permaculture offer a story that is extremely useful and accessible in some ways - for example, permaculturists have done a superb job of shifting people from the rather depressing reality to the energizing power of permaculture work.  The affirmative powers of both movements are superb.  They have several advantages over many of the mainstream emerging answers.

1. They were there first, bringing the whole story together.

2. They are positive, energizing and reassuring to people.

3. Their story and solutions *thus far* lines up really well with events.

So while Transition and permaculture as movements have no hope of competing in the area of advertising dollars with government or corporate narratives, they have the advantage of telling a coherent story, an appealing and imaginative one, dosed in reality, but with ways to go forward.  And for a surprisingly large number of people, that consistency and accuracy, that hope and utility are more attractive than the mainstream BAU narrative. For now, while things are not very bad, they line up beautifully with events - that is, people look and see “oh, wait, the evidence for these things is here, oh, wait it really does make me feel better to grow food and work in my community.”

My concern, then, is that Transition and Permaculture, perhaps thrust into roles they might not have fully expected, moving faster than perhaps anyone would have liked, in the face of great exigency and much more disrupted circumstances than they have been perhaps planning for, offer a compelling counter-narrative, and that that counter-narrative continue to play to their strengths - that is, that they continue to offer truths that line up with facts and that they continue to offer solutions that really do seem to get us somewhere. 

I don’t doubt that the truth will continue to line up with facts, but I do worry that permaculture groups and Transition as they exist right now might not be able to expand fast enough into mainstream American communities (and I hope I am clear that I am writing from an American perspective here, from a country without a viable left, where even its “socialist” president would be a center or center-rightist in many countries), and that their solutions might come to seem irrelevant, if events proceed fast enough.  These are places where I think potential allies could be lost, or where the structures might fail, and be replaced with structures that have far more troubling ideological issues.

Because I see these things as potential problems, my first choice is not to convince people that permaculture is bad, but to convince permaculturists to consider them and to take up strategies for “mainstreaming” and for adapting permaculture strategies for emergency preparedness - in that vein, I’m hoping to put up a couple of posts about what I  imagine as the “permaculture of crisis” in the next few weeks. 

I do worry that I am perhaps being unfair to both Transition and Permaculture.  And I’d try not to, except this - I don’t think we have a Plan B.  Ultimately, most of our plans - and I’d include Pat Murphy’s Plan C, Transition, Resilient cities, etc… come down to the same basic stuff, much of which has come, for better and worse, to live under the rhetorical rubric of “permaculture” and “Transition.”  Get smaller fast.  Get allies fast.  Do everything at once - build new economies, grow food, fix the ecologies, help the hungry, the poor and the cold, help prevent more hungry poor and cold, stick your finger in the dike and watch it turn blue, hold back the water with your arms and all the force you’ve got.  And the reality is this - on some measure what ever strategies we use will fail.  But there is failure and failure, there are small floods and large ones.  All that matters is that the work gets done, as well as possible, that the floods are as small as we can make them, and that the suffering is as little as possible.  That’s honestly all I care about.


Not "like" a Revolution, it IS a REVOLUTION!

Sharon June 30th, 2009

Reader Randy sent me this today, and it just makes me happy to see the boom in urban agriculture:

 ‘Both Allen and Myers agree that the boom in urban farming for African-Americans is born out of necessity and not just echoing traditions.

“Minority people are affected by poor food, more than any other groups,” and many inner cities lack access to quality fruits and vegetables, Allen says. “Our food system is broken.”

“When you’re poor, when you don’t have access to resources, you have to create your own,” says Myers. “So this is a way for people of African descent to use their creativity to grow their own food.”

Many poorer communities don’t have full-scale grocery stores. Allen charges that companies have red-lined those areas and won’t build stores there.

So community activists like Myers have taken up the fight.

“[Starting] community gardens in local communities, specifically in urban areas, is important, so you create your own food security network,” says Myers. “You’re not relying on large grocery stores to provide food for everyone because if those grocery stores have problems, your access to food is done.”‘

The most important places to grow food have always been the places where people already are, and where good food is already needed.  Urban food deserts and rural ones both  need to build their agricultural infrastructure - and quickly, because conventional safety nets are already showing signs of fraying.  The good news is that nobody has to tell ordinary poor people they are screwed if they don’t take care of themselves - they’ve been doing that a long, long time.

African American farmers have suffered disproportionately under industrial agriculture - in the last 30 years, 35% of white American farmers have lost their land, while 80% of black American farmers have.  The average white American farmer is farming almost half again as much land as he was in 1970.  The average black American farmer is farming 1/5th as much land as he was in 1970.  Meanwhile American black farmers are involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the USDA, demonstrating that that agency helped drive thousands of black farmers out of business by denying them the same loans they were granting to white farmers.  The settlement numbers will probably end up in the billions.

African American people have suffered disproportionately from industrial food as well - obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are more prevalent in black communities, as is salt sensitivity, driving up the health costs in both personal sufffering and material expense.  Poor urban neighborhoods half 1/5 the square footage of grocery store space in many areas, and most of the food is in bodegas and convenience stores, whose higher prices strain budgets. 

We need more black farmers, and better food in black communities.   Since the average age of African-American farmers is even older than the average age of American white farmers (63 vs 59), and because their parents and grandparents so overwhelmingly lost their land, the next generation of young farmers is going to come out of the cities and the city gardens.  Not only is it desperately important that all urban neighborhoods produce as much food as possible, it is even more urgent that we begin using those neighborhoods to train up farmers in the way that they should go - using smaller plots of land, intensive methods and low cost, low input organic techniques. 

The good news is that this is happening - that the shift in food systems isn’t an elite revolution, as sometimes is suggested.  Gardening has a long tradition in African-American communities - traditions that clearly aren’t that hard to reignite.  In World War II, African-American families dominated the Victory Garden movement - while white affluent families were the ones in the pictures, in Dallas, 90 percent of black families had a Victory Garden, while only 40 percen of white ones did. 

I’m doing a lot of radio interviews lately (I’ll be on NPR in Chicago this afternoon), and a little bit of my schtick is this - one estimate suggests that in just the last two years we’ve added *8 MILLION* new gardens - virtually all of them food producing.  That’s in just two years!  We’ve only got 92 million to go - that means we’re practically halfway there.  That line always gets a laugh, but I’m not joking - it isn’t just like a Revolution in agriculture, it is a revolution in agriculture - we’re having it now.


The Smart Course or the Stupid One: Why Legalizing Drugs Now is Just Common Sense

Sharon June 30th, 2009

Every once in a while someone tells me about a plan they’ve read that allows them to make 50,000 dollars an acre or something like it.  They are excited, and don’t understand why more farmers don’t do this.  My standing observation is that I can think of only a couple of crops that will make you that much money direct off the field, and these days, people send helicopters around to look for those crops and burn your fields, so I don’t recommend it.  Occasionally they protest they will make that amount with a crop they will process for added value.  I then have to inform them that no, one cannot offer boutique moonshine or organic, biodynamic local heroin under the current laws, and jam will not make them that kind of money.

Now let me be absolutely clear - I stand firmly on the side of drug legalization.  I say this not so much because I want to take drugs - my nine consecutive years of pregnancy and nursing ended only recently, and so I’m quite out of the habit of indulging in anything other than the occasional beer or glass of wine, but because I think the drug war is, well, stupid. 

Once upon a time, in my misspent youth, I did some casual drug use, some of it legal, some of it illegal.  During a brief period in my 20s I drank too much, smoked tobacco, smoked pot, and used drugs occasionally.  I rather enjoyed it until I experienced my first hangover and then, mostly stopped, the price not being worth the pleasure.  I am rather typical of most people who use these drugs, in that I used them, sometimes to excess, but never became addicted.  Most casual drug users (except casual tobacco users) don’t get addicted.  There are manifestly some people who should avoid all drugs, legal and illegal, because of a tendency to become addicted.  Other people should simply because they don’t tolerate them well - all the drugs my husband has ever used have simply made him nauseous, so he doesn’t use them, barring a little beer. 

In a perfect world, there would be no addictive substances, no destructive substances, and we’d have no real urge to take poisons.  But manifestly we do have such an urge - some of the come by prescription, others are legal but regulated, some legal and unregulated (think white sugar), and some are illegal.  The major difference between them is the cultural assumptions we have about them - not their toxicity, not their harmfulness, and frankly, not their availability.

The war on drugs has not successfully kept people from doing drugs.  My own plan, when my children are old enough to experiment with drugs, is to give them this lecture, at least in regards to pot.  “Ok guys, here’s the truth.  Your father smoked pot a few times.  Your mother smoked pot.  Most of your grandparents smoked pot, some of them quite extensively.   Your great-grandmother Inge smoked pot (ok, once, with her daughter, and would I have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that event ;-) ).  Do you really want  to do something so old-fashioned?” ;-)   Let us note that pot was illegal in all of these cases, and even Grandma could get it. 

My own husband and I, never being much in the way of drug seeking for ourselves, both saw all the coke, LSD, meth and other drugs we could ever want lying around.  No one seemed to have much trouble getting it - in fact, at college, it was harder to get beer sometimes - the liquor stores actually checked ID.  Were I to want any of these things today, I know precisely where to get them, in extraordinarily large quantities.  Many of them aren’t even very expensive - I like good gin in my very occasional G & Ts, and a bottle would cost me more than more meth, coke or pot than I’d ever want to use (ok, more meth or coke than I’d ever want would be any quantity over 0).

Nor have the drug laws successfully prevented people from growing said drugs - we’ve been completely ineffective at stopping the Afghan opium trade, although we’ve poisoned and impoverished some already impoverished farmers as a moral lesson of some sort.  We certainly feel entitled to bomb and poison Columbian fields, and to subsidize repressive regimes and wars in the interest of making a teeny, tiny rise in the price of coke. 

Periodically low flying helicopters travel over the dairy farms and vegetable fields of my region. We always wave to them.  This is, of course, a good use of our remaining energy and money - G-d forbid that the pot sold at my local university should enrich some local farmer rather than coming from some other state or nation. Of course, I’m sure the students at my husband’s university never, ever use drugs.

 Much better the farmer should obey the law, sell out and let people build McMansions on their land, as one my neighbors did.  Now there are 10 McMansions, all but two of which have turned over several times, two of which are in foreclosure. Had the price of dairy and apples not tanked, and pot been illegal, we’d have a nice chunk of farmland producing something rather useful - now we’ve got 10 houses on 5 acre lots that produce mostly lawnmower emissions and foreclosure notices. 

George Monbiot wisely (as usual) gets to the heart of the matter - we are slowly starting to recognize what is self-evident, that the drug war is inane and a waste of energy, money and resources we cannot afford.  He writes:

“It  looked like the first drop of rain in the desert of drugs policy. Last week Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN office on drugs and crime, said what millions of liberal-minded people have been waiting to hear. “Law enforcement should shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers … people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution.” Drug production should remain illegal, possession and use should be decriminalised. Guardian readers toasted him with bumpers of peppermint tea, and, perhaps, a celebratory spliff. I didn’t.

I believe that informed adults should be allowed to inflict whatever suffering they wish – on themselves. But we are not entitled to harm other people. I know people who drink fair-trade tea and coffee, shop locally and take cocaine at parties. They are revolting hypocrites.

Every year cocaine causes some 20,000 deaths in Colombia and displaces several hundred thousand people  from their homes. Children are blown up by landmines; indigenous people are enslaved; villagers are tortured and killed; rainforests are razed. You’d cause less human suffering if instead of discreetly retiring to the toilet at a media drinks party, you went into the street and mugged someone. But the counter-cultural association appears to insulate people from ethical questions. If commissioning murder, torture, slavery, civil war, corruption and deforestation is not a crime, what is?”

I’m right with Monbiot - rich assholes and casual users should be jailed, if anyone is going to be punished.  Drug production, sales and use should either be illegal, universally punished, or legal - across the board.  Screwing farmers and addicts and looking the other way for some folks and not for others is immoral - and yes, this would have included me.  Oddly, I was never caught using drugs.  But then again, I was a white girl attending universities, not subject to DWB traffic stops.  The one occasion when I could have gotten in trouble, a friend of mine was rather publically high and carrying.  The university cop that stopped us simply confiscated the substance and sent us on our way (oddly, the confiscation never appeared in the University police blotter…I wonder what happened to the little baggie in question…hmmmm ;-) )  On the other hand, since there was marajuana growing outside a university building (I shall not name it in case students have continue this tradition) and quite a few students, faculty and administrators walked the path alongside which it grew daily, perhaps this was unstated policy.

Which of course brings us to the gist of the matter - there’s no freakin’ way we can afford to have a consistent drug illegality, or a moral drug policy of any kind.  California is about to start releasing its prisoners because it can’t afford to feed and house them.  It can’t afford its helicopters either.  And California is only leading the way - none of us can afford our insane drug policies which are energy and cost intensive.  In fact, we can’t even afford our *immoral* double-standard drug policies anymore.

Moreover, while eventually prices will come down because of market flooding, legalization is the answer to much of our difficulties - tax revenues from pot alone would exceed California’s budget shortfall.  The combination of freeing California drug offenders and legalizing pot would essentially fix California’s present crisis.  The high initial price of drugs would be an excellent transition crop for small farmers, attempting to make a living as we shift away from industrial agriculture.

Now I have a great deal of sympathy for those who have been hurt by drugs, and I don’t like excessive drug use.  I don’t like it when the drug is legal - two of my grandparents spent their last years hooked up to oxygen tanks, gasping with emphysema, even though both of them had stopped smoking more than 20 years before.  I don’t like it when the drugs are illegal.  But I think we can safely say that the illegality of drugs has done little discourage their use.  What it has done is mean that their safety cannot be regulated, the drug trade is rife with violence, farmers cannot grow even non-drug crops like hemp, much less the drugs themselves, and drugs are not taxed. 

Now Monbiot conceeds, and so do I, that drug trade legalization would collapse the price of drugs in the poor world, costing farmers, and creating more drug addicts there.  This is true - at the same time, it would also reduce warfare and violence in the poor world.  We do not know how the cost benefit analysis would actually come out - would it be better or worse for poor farmers to actually be able to take cocaine rather than sending their daughters to swallow cocaine-filled condoms and fly to the US?  Neither is a good, but for once I’m on the side of the free-marketeers, because if nothing else, it creates the possibility that fair trade organic heroin, coke and pot might actually support some people sustainably.

Monbiot claims we have two ethical choices - universal prosecution of casual offenders and producers, or universal legalization.  I’d argue that we only have one choice, because neither the US nor the UK can afford to keep up the fake war on drugs - the profits are too small, the energy costs too great - at every level from military interventions to drug interdiction, to the stupid helicopters to the court costs and prison costs, there is no meaningful way for a poorer, energy depleted society to prohibit drugs - even a rich, energy rich society can’t do it effectively, as we slide down the slope, we can’t do it at all.

 Drugs are going to be legal, or effectively legal in time - and a damned good thing too for a host of reasons.  First of all, it will be good for farmers - marajuana and hemp are good rotational crops in much of the US.  Small farmers, developing new markets need high value crops - opium used to grow widely in the US, and could again.  Moreover, local communities are going to need these medicinal crops - that is, we’re going to need the painkillers and anti-nauseal, anti-glaucoma qualities of pot and opiates.  And yes, legalization is going to hurt some people - some people will become addicted, some people will die.  It is also going to help some people - some people will not be impoverished, some people will not suffer.

The only choice is legalization - the question is when.  We can do it one of two ways - the smart one or the stupid one.  We can overthrow the drug laws largely and enmasse, creating new tax revenues, new sources of profit.  We can ground the helicopters and stop the drug wars, and let out the non-violent drug offenders, and have money enough to insulate and buy open land for public agriculture and build local renewable energy systems.  We can stop wasting our time keeping some toxic drugs legal and others not, and concentrate on the very real work of descent.  Or we can keep the drug laws going as long as possible, and take our revenues out of the social safety nets that protect children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled. We can leave poor non-white guys who carried an ounce of marajuana in prison until the last possible minute, and instead sell off our public inheritance and waste the last few years we have to adjust to the future. 

Me, I’m just crazy enough to prefer “not stupid” as a strategy all around.  Maybe especially here.

Adapting In Place Is Not a Choice For Most of Us

Sharon June 29th, 2009

A while back I wrote an essay arguing that while many people will lose their homes and have to move in with family or into rentals in the coming crisis, still more will end up trapped where they are, unable to sell their homes, unable to get credit to buy another, or even to find rental housing due to credit rating losses, and with other family dependent on the only stable home available to them.  That is, the flip side of disruption and movement is that many people are going to be adapting in place - only often with more people in the place than they thought.

 It seems that all of these things are probably roughly coming true.  There has been a substantial increase in the number of people combining housing, although it is hard to measure how much, because there are often prohibitions against such things.  More people are leaving homes and looking for rental housing, although many of them have a hard time finding it, because credit ratings are still important.  Meanwhile, the migration rate - the rate of people moving, has dropped like a stone.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, Frey said, as many as 20 percent of Americans moved in any given year. Mobility rates slowed to 15 percent to 16 percent during the 1990s. But in 2008, only 11.9 percent of Americans moved, he said.”

Meanwhile, some people are Adapting in Place without the amenities of utilities, as reports come in that more foreclosed houses are being squatted in by the original owners. 

Many of us, I think will go into these tough times not where we want to be, but where we are. Others will be the “brother in law on the couch” - moving in with family as needed (I’ve got a post in the works on being the BIL on the Couch, btw, for those who have requested it).  It won’t always be the best prepared person who ends up staying in their home, nor will it always be the best home - it may be the person who keeps their job longest or whose mortgage is smallest, or who happens to live in a place where there is still work. 

And while some folks already have the superinsulated straw bale house, the solar panels and everything else, most of us, well, we don’t.  We’re trying to cobble together our infrastructure, hoping desperately for a few more paychecks and discovering what exactly people mean by “red clay” “R-value negligible” or “fixer-upper” in world where there isn’t as much money, time or energy as we’d like. 

My belief is that in most places, for most people, the process of dealing with our collective crisis is going to be messy.  It will not be as graceful, elegant or smooth as we’d like.  It will involve making the best of what we’ve got, and it will probably involve extensive cursing of how we used our last great burst of wealth and energy.

The good news is that there really is a great deal you can do while you curse (far be it from me to suggest people stop cursing - I try not to advise anything I’m not willing to do ;-) ).  Did you always secretly want to be MacGyver, escaping from dangerous agents with baling twine and toilet paper (I’ve never actually seen this show, so I can’t tell if this is an accurate description, but I gather from pop culture references that it was something of the sort)?  Well, think what happens if you manage to survive peak oil, climate change and economic collapse with nothing but 1960s split level ranch, the stuff you can dumpster dive and your paycheck.  It may not be elegant, but you’ve got to admit, it is interesting.

Anyway, there’s no need to despair if you didn’t yet get the money to buy land, if the eco-village turned you down because you still use regular toilet paper, or if your present version of community mostly involves the local brewpub.  There’s probably land that’s underused around you, toilet paper can presumably be used for some MacGyver-like purpose, and beer remains the universal solvent to resistance to forming useful community groups.  Use what you have.  Adapt in place.


Permaculture Future?: Part I

Sharon June 29th, 2009

Recently, Dmitry Orlov offered a selection of possible topics for a talk he was giving, and several of them dealt with the ubiquity of permaculture as the articulated solution to our present crisis.  Orlov’s point was that a consensus seems to be emerging that permaculture strategies - particularly the Transition movement - have emerged as the de facto solution to our collective crisis without a lot of public conversation or questioning.  I didn’t get to hear Dmitry’s commentary on this subject (although I can guess what some of it would be), but it pushed me to begin a subject I’ve been gently avoiding for a while. 

Now I am commonly described as a permaculturist, and I’ve no objection, in fact it rather pleases me - I generally don’t worry much about how people describe me, and this is one of the nicer ways.   Officially, I’m not sure I qualify - I’ve never taken a full design course myself, and am mostly self-taught.  I’ve taught in a few design classes, but have never sought certification for one reason - I don’t think of myself primarily as a designer, at least in a classical sense.  That may seem strange, since a lot of what I do is design work - I teach garden design, Adapting in Place (ie, designing your life to work with less money and energy), etc…  But permaculture design is formal design of a particular kind - deeply visual, deeply concerned with maps and images.  I’m not a terribly visual person - my own strengths have to do with the translation of the world into words, not images.   There are too many pictures in permaculture design  for me ;-) .

Moreover, I tend not to sign up quickly for membership in “ists” or “isms” - even ones that I approve of deeply.  The only club I officially belong to is the order of agrarians, and only because I want to meet Wendell Berry someday ;-) .  

Despite my lack of official signing up (I have the same issues with joining the Kantians ;-) ) I do approve of permaculture in a broad sense.  I like many of the things it has brought to our society as a whole, and I like many permaculturists.  I can think of far worse principles from which to build a new society.  Moreover, I give enormous credit to Rob Hopkins and Transition practitioners, who have essentially created the only viable, large scale alternate model for dealing with a coming crisis - that’s quite an accomplishment.  One of the reasons I have not written this post before is that I really don’t want to criticize or undermine permaculture and transition, which have been fairly successful - Transition astonishing successful in a short time - in energizing a lot of people with a new idea and vision.  Given our shortage of good solutions for responding, and the need for coherent solutions, I don’t want to seem as though I’m sniping at something I admire and value. 

That said, however, I admit to some doubts about the political viability of permaculture as a solution for our collective crisis, doubts I’m going to articulate here, in the interest of promoting a larger discussion about permaculture, and about the possibility of movements in general as a strategy of mitigation.  I do want to be clear that I am not trying to undermine the enormous efforts made by people involved in permaculture and Transition, nor do I want to see them discontinue their efforts.  But I do feel that there are questions to be discussed and answered.

I should be absolutely clear here - all of my concerns about permaculture are about elements of permaculture’s presentation and emphasis - not about the overall goals of Transition or the permaculture movement. That is, even if I don’t qualify as an official permaculturist, even if I critique them, there is no question I want to work with permaculturists - their emphasis on scale, on  integrating food production and local economies, their emphasis on appropriate technology - all of these things are, I think, absolutely right.  The question is not whether permaculture is bad - I would deny that outright.  The question for me is whether permaculture and its offshoots, as they are presented and emphasized now,  can do what they would like to do - make a smooth (or smoother) transition than any other method through tough times.

The first one is a philosophical one - can permaculture as a movement actually attract enough mainstream people to really and truly make a difference? This to me is a sincere and serious question, and perhaps the deepest issue to be addressed.  When I have given talks at permaculture classes, attended group meetings, or given talks to permaculturist audiences, I’ve noticed a pervasive consistency among the attendees.  While there are exceptions, and I can’t speak for permaculturist gatherings outside the US, the ones I’ve attended (and I’ve attended quite a few in different areas of the country) have had some common denominators.  The attendees tend to be white and middle class, or if they are not middle class, they are very young, and immersed in alternative culture.  I don’t mean to stereotype, but most of the people who attend these groups tend to visually signal their attachment to historical leftist or alternative communities.  There are plenty of exceptions, but the predominance is of grey pony tails, yoga mats, priuses, flowered skirts and lefty bumperstickers.  These are not bad things - I grew up in precisely this culture and am quite fond of it.  But the absence of trucks with gun racks, right wing bumper stickers,  non-white people and other signifiers of ideological is somewhat disheartening, if you are looking for a universal movement.  At the Albany permaculture gathering, I was discussing with one of the other participants how pleased I was that the demographic involved more younger people, only to be mocked by the speaker, Larry Santoyo, for praising the diversity of the nearly all-white group.  And he was right - my standards have just been lowered over time ;-) .

I realize that permaculture has a somewhat wider audience in the UK and Australia, and that these may be primarily American objections.  The US, for example, has never gotten permaculture into any soap opera ;-) .  I also recognize that both are comparatively new here in the US, and that the early adopters don’t necessarily describe who will come to the fold in the long term.  Both are meant to be deeply flexible and adaptive to local conditions, and it is possible that they will become so.  There is a case to be made that some elements of leftist culture - universal therapy, yoga and tofu, for example, have permeated into the mainstream of American culture quite gracefully.  There is a case to be made, however, on the other side, that other elements have not.

My claim is not that permaculture as an idea is ideologically leftist, or particularly hippyish, but that its practice has been, at least in the US.  And this, I think is, quite frankly, a bad thing if the goal is the creation of a mass movement.  Frankly, having grown up the child of baby boomers, my own tastes don’t run that way.  I find myself in sympathy with people who aren’t attracted to the Transition Training’s emphasis on visualizing, community building activities, etc…  My own entry into visualization exercises and trust-building dates back to summer camps as a child, and the whole thing makes me a bit queasy.  When the words “get in a circle” are uttered, I tend to start wandering off.   I recognize this may be my own personal design flaw, but I have no interest in ever building a Web of Resilience, and I think it extremely unlikely that many of my neighbors would be interested as well, or would take time off work and home life for it.  I’m sure some of them would, but the emphasis of many permaculturists on the language of popular therapy and summer-camp style activities designed to create consensus, build trust and visualize the sustainable future are, well a turn off for whole classes of people.  They will speak to other groups - but the question of who you are speaking to is, of course, the essential one. 

Even the language of “acknowledging one’s sense of loss and grief” is one that is tough for a lot of people to swallow, despite the pervasiveness of Oprah and Dr. Phil.  I think there is a real question about how much public discussion of one’s feelings is going to be attractive in different populations and communities.  A friend of mine recently attended Transition Training in his town, and said to me “there was good stuff, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to join a cult.”  This is not the impression one wants to cultivate ;-) .  I make no claim that his experience was universal, but I’ve heard more than few people express similar sentiments from different parts of the US and different countries.

There are countries in the world and a few regions of the US in which a movement that uses tools that primarily appeal to the crunchy left will be successful.  Speaking as an American, for America as a whole, however, I do not think the entire US is one of them, nor are most regions.  I think it is important to recognize that while permaculture itself is not a leftist movement philosophically, an extended diet of bearded and ponytailed permaculture teachers and enthusiasts ;-) making comments about the Republicans will tend to associate the movement with the politics of its public faces. 

The painful reality of American politics for us leftists is that at no time as the American public cast open its arms and said “we were just waiting for you to invite us to join with you” ;-) .  Associate permaculture to closely with the American left, and the reality is that many people won’t join.

Is there a solution that problem?  I suspect so, perhaps some attention to the design of permaculture’s PR image.  Many (not all) of the people who embraced permaculture were mostly on the left, at least to a degree (thank G-d for Bill Mollison and Larry Santoyo, who offer a cheerful confirmation that permaculture really isn’t politically associated with one side or another, and provide hard drinking, reality pushing, capitalist (in Larry’s case, anyway), versions of the things itself ;-) - I may not be a capitalist and I’ve long since lost any tolerance for hard drinking, but I find them refreshing and funny, which is helpful), and they certainly know things we need to know. And most of the permaculturists I know are more complex than that - Larry Santoyo was a California Cop, Toby Hemenway a scientist…. that is, they aren’t what they are widely perceived to be.  But perceptions matter more than reality in some cases, and polling people who are not part of the club, the widespread perception I find is that permaculture is another hippie thing, to go with the “liberal left behind movement” reputation of peak oil. Whether it is fair or not, it matters.  At a minimum, I’d be careful about the language associations and techniques one adapts - I don’t think that evoking meditation or trust building is a really good idea, say, for Transition Mississippi, or even Transition rural upstate NY if the goal is critical mass.

My main suggestion would be that at least in the US, Transition movements begin engaging religious communities on a serious level.  I give a lot of talks at churches and synagogues and other religious communities.  Many of those communities are already engaging in the nuts and bolts work of responding to an *existing* Long Emergency - they are doing the marrying and burying, the preaching of moralities, both productive and not.  They run the food pantries, the battered women’s shelters, the emergency funds.  They find clothing for the naked, food for the hungry and offer sanctuary and public appeals when violence breaks out.  This is the nitty gritty work of responding to the crisis as it unfolds, and it must be done simultaneously with the building of the “better model.”  I would argue that some of (not all) the best people to make the case for Transition to are the people who are already on teh ground in our cities and towns doing the work that desperately needs more hands. 

My other suggestion is that permaculture groups seek out people who are *already* doing the work of sustainability, but don’t get any credit for it, because they are poor.  Some do this, but the fact that these groups tend to be mostly made up of middle class white folks suggest to me that that asking the people who are already living in the city with no electricity, because the bill gets cut off every April, and the people who are already dumpster diving and making their livings of the waste of the city, and the people who are already stretching every resource because they have no choice, or urban farming because that’s just what you do where they come from ought to be invested in the local permaculture community.  And it will not do to go among them as missionaries and teach them - let them teach you.  You may have done the food stamp budget challenge one month - they’ve been doing it for years, and can tell you how to keep eating when the money runs out.  I do not want to see something so valuable become the territory only of an affluent middle class who can afford to pay a few thousand bucks and take two weeks off work to take a design seminar.

The second question/critique I’d offer is this - is it possible to imagine permaculture responding successfully in situations not of peaceful exigency, of gentle shifts, but of violent ones?  I think there is little doubt that some places will experience violent shifts - by this I mean war, civil or otherwise, rioting, vast increases in criminal activity and violence, and civic disruption.  Some of those places may not be in the US ;-) .  Recently Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg made public their correspondence about whether Transition should incorporate emergency preparedness into its training and work - it was an excellent conversation, and long overdue, but it inadvertantly exposed some real limitations to Transition’s planning - Hopkins’s conclusion was that perhaps it could begin to do so, and his first thought was that it could include camping and wilderness survival skills.  As useful as these might be to many people, and as good a thought as that is, it struck me as a measure of how far off from dealing with a truly disastrous situation we are - it is true some people may retreat into woods as refugees, but far more likely to be needed are plans for quelling local violence, building emergency shelters and providing emergency medical services, and urban survival.  Hopkins noted that he saw little way to address preparedness measures because they were traditional “top down” applications - ie, provided by the state.  But if Transition’s bottom-up structures are overridden the moment there is a major crisis by existing top-down structures, then we can assume that we will no longer be living in a society governed by permaculture.  I realize that the long term goal is for permaculture models to replace existing structures, smoothly and gradually. 

The problem is lack of time - historically institutions that have done very well in tough times have been those that had something to offer people in exigency - that took up the work of dealing with the crisis.  If a crisis comes before the town council or the local government is replaced by loving permaculturists, permaculturist movements must offer a compelling case that they can handle a rough transition better than existing infrastructure - that means heavy emphasis on preparedness.  Religious institutions have known this - think how powerful the relief institutions and madresses of Islam, or Catholic social welfare structures have been in influencing local relationships to religious communities.  Permaculture is not a religion, but it is perhaps, a faith at this stage - a faith that it has something to offer.  But if tough times come rapidly and it has nothing to offer those already experiencing exigency, if its message is “wait, we’ve go the right technique, it just takes a while…” I think that permaculture will be rapidly pushed aside. 

Naomi Klein’s superb _The Shock Doctrine_ observes the degree to which people cling to the familiar in tough times - and they cling even harder to those they believe were there for them.  If we had a decade or more before the Long Emergency was thrust upon us, or if we could assure a smooth shift, and if the language of permaculture can be shifted (and I think it can be) to one that is more encompassing, that works as well in the US as it has elsewhere, I would be less uncertain about the value of some of the work being done now.  But for most of us, our time to transition is measured in months or a couple of years at most - for a host of reasons.  The economic crisis is on us now, and we know that the energy crisis is coming rather quickly alongside it.  We have less than 5 years left from James Hansen’s deadline to begin making “radical and draconian” changes on the climate.  We have so much to do and so little time.

I admire enormously much of the work of permaculture and permaculturists, and every time someone calls me one, I’m pleased and proud to be associated with that community.  There is no group out there that does not have issues that need consideration and critique - and permaculture has more that I will attend to in my next post on this matter - the issue of how we will address the larger questions of feeding cities and whole populations, and the question of what degree of actual success Transition is having at this point are, I think, important questions to ask.

I find myself wanting permaculture to succeed - there are plenty of things to like about it, particularly as an economic model. And if Transition or Permaculture can’t do enough fast enough, I’m honestly dubious that they will succeed at all.  If we had world enough and time, that would be great.  But the models that will help us most are the ones that can work under circumstances of enormous disruption and difficulty as well as during a smooth shift.


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