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.


55 Responses to “Permaculture Future? Part II”

  1. Susan says:

    I see Permaculture as part of a broad global mindshift towards wholistic thinking. For me, this is incredibly heartening. If there is a tsunami of threats approaching, this type of thinking is also a tsunami –of spontaneous evolution in consciousness, happening with or without handholding circles.
    This new type of thinking has been cropping up in many places in the world. Although not always called “permaculture,” many of the same principles are being expressed by Vinay Gupta’s designs for disaster relief; in Allan Savory’s wholistic range management, developed in Africa; in Anna Edy’s “Solviva” greenhouse designs (Anna actually built and ran a massively productive greenhouse for many years on Martha’s Vineyard using chickens as a primary heat source.); in Alternative Energy DIY appropriate tech type inventions; even in business management theory where classic top-down authoritarian structures are now considered outmoded and are being replaced by more horizontal, collaborative structures; and as is happening on the internet with wikis, social networking, cell phone “flash mobs,” and open source projects. These are examples of the new type of whole systems, collaborative thinking in action, which Bill Mollison also invented in his own earth-restorative way.
    One obstacle to applying rather than just teaching permaculture is access to land and the capital needed to put systems in place. In my part of Northern California I see so much underutilized land (considered Real Estate and thus far too expensive for young people to access.) which could otherwise be 1, 2, 5 acre smallholdings for families to tend and occupy in their handbuilt natural homes –even better as co-smallholding communities, with the common land being used for the larger undertakings such as grain-growing, pond-building, or large animal grazing.
    In Santa Barbara, in a “use small and slow solutions” way, a group called is putting in and tending food gardens in place of peoples’ lawns for free in exchange for rights to the surplus produce to sell in farmers’ markets –an example of a new kind of land reform (?!)
    I agree that permaculture, very dear to my heart, has to deal with its branding or image before it can effectively go mainstream. This is the brilliance of the Transition movement –its openhearted, inclusive outreaching-with-a-positive-message which is able to bring in local government et al, and really get some broad attention.

  2. Per Fagereng says:

    Governments also bomb innocent people. And governments train and equip their own terrorists.

    If I were a cynical person I’d shrug my shoulders and say that’s how the world operates. But I’m not being cynical, I’m outraged.

    My main point is: Any government that makes war on others might some day make war on its own people. We should be aware of that.

  3. Ann Lamot says:

    Well, I’ve gone and read both of Sharon’s postings and the comments, then I read Rob’s postings and comments, took me a while, as I haven’t got a lot of time to spend in front of a computer, too busy “doing it”. By that I mean that most of my time is spend growing food, reskilling others in my community to do likewise, organising events to raise people’s awareness of the coming challenges of peak oil, climate change, etc, going to meetings to get people organised to start creating more local resilience, meeting with other community organisations to see how we could possibly work together, meeting with local authorities, have planning meetings with the other members of our core group and much more. Because I’m one of those transitionistas and worse, I’m even a transition trainer!

    I’m glad to see this discussion taking place in this way, because it is one that we have all the time amongst al lot of us working in transition. How to get more people informed, then how to get them to feel that they can actually take action to start working on their resilience and their communities’.
    We basically know what we’ve got to do, but it all takes a lot of time and energy. It takes a lot of talking before you can get people to start doing stuff. There’s just no getting away from that. It can be frustrating and seem like all we do is talk, but it still seems the most acceptable way to action.

    Do we have enough time? I don’t know, but what else would we do? Sit at home in solitairy despair? Wait for “them”(whoever “they” may be) to sort it for us? Every fruit tree planted, bicycle repaired, person taught how to grow food creates more resilience and will put us in a better position to weather shit hitting fans. Like Sharon, if I could see a better way of getting our communities ready, minimise the suffering and give my children a future worth living, I’d be doing that. But I don’t know of anything else that would work as fast and with as much respect for individuals and humanitairian values as the Transition process as proposed by Rob Hopkins.

    I must say, as a transition trainer, I am a bit bemused by all the assumptions regarding transition training. Yes, of course we sit in a circle, duh, it is just the most practical way to see and hear everybody without getting neckache. But we don’t “hold hands”.
    The main aim of the course is to get people who want to start up transtion initiatives in their locality prepared to do this in the best possible way. It’s about how to hold productive meetings, how to hold awareness raising events without banging your head on brick walls, how to give talks and presentations on the topic, how to deal with people who are scared and angry because of what you are telling them about their future and to be compassionate. We explore the transition ethos and principles so that people gain a good understanding of these. We look at what has been tried already and what worked and what didn’t, so that people don’t need to keep on making the same mistakes and can speed up the process. And yeah, sure we look at why it is so hard for people to change their ways, how we ended up on such a self destructive path and how we can keep going and not burn out. That’s the inner work that we do that seems to cause such controversy. You can get get people to change what they do without getting them willing to change their expectations, their attitudes and their thinking. To ignore that aspect of humans would just be dumb.

    So that’s my twopence worth on the topic. Now I gotta go, got a lotta work to do. All the best to you all!

  4. [...] the forum- which was Rob’s response to Sharon Astyk’s astute critique of Permaculture and Transition- the discussion covered many interesting topics and many opinions, but several people clearly had [...]

  5. [...] the Transition movement and the Permaculture movement, both community-based networks, are the analogue of the local cells of religious groups. [...]

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