14 August 2015, Christchurch

(This is the speech I wrote for a panel on new economics organised by ‘It’s Our Future’ as part of a week of action against the TPPA. As usual, it changed a bit on the night)

I am going to begin by talking about a word I came across when reading a book called “The Way” by Edward Goldsmith. Goldsmith was the founder of The Ecologist magazine and a great thinker. In “The Way” he describes the characteristics of natural ecosystems, which he describes as highly purposive. Healthy natural systems are, he says, homeotelic. It is a word he created to describe something he could find no word for. It comes from the Greek – homeo (the same) and tellus (a goal). In a healthy natural system all parts have the same ultimate purpose, which is to maintain and enhance the integrity of the whole. The default behaviour of any healthy part of the system serves to maintain and enhance the integrity of the whole. So the default behaviour of a single cell serves to maintain and enhance the integrity of the organ of which it is part. And the behaviour of an organ serves to maintain and enhance the integrity of the organism of which it is part. And the organism – let’s say it is a tiger – acts to maintain the integrity of the bioregion that it is part of, perhaps a jungle. The behaviour of the jungle maintains the integrity of the region, and so on until we get to the planetary whole. And the same applies in reverse.

Natural human culture, what Goldsmith calls ‘vernacular culture’, is also homeotelic. Industrial culture, and in my view most, but perhaps not all, civilisation is the opposite. It is heterotelic – that is the default behaviour of human individuals in our system serves to undermine and degrade the integrity of the ecological whole. That is why in our system it takes more effort and cost, in general, to act in a responsible way.

This word was a bit of a revelation for me, because it showed me really clearly what our mission is in the world today. To recreate our society and culture as a homeotelic culture. Most importantly to recreate our economic system, which is the biggest driver of this heterotelic impulse, as a homeotelic system. It is interesting that China has now started talking about becoming an ecological civilisation. I’m not sure how serious they are, but that is in fact what needs to happen. Industrial civilisation must become an ecological civilisation.

The real question, though, is how do we do that?

This is why I think permaculture is so important. Permaculture systems design is the only approach I have come across that provides real and practical design tools for doing just that, for designing systems that homeotelic. Systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.

Sustainable, meaning systems that are capable of lasting indefinitely – or to put that another way, where harvests do not exceed regeneration rates or wastes exceed natural assimilation rates of the ecosystems they are based on.

Resilient. Many people, even so called experts, confuse resilience and robustness. Robust comes from the Latin robus for oak, strength. It is the ability to shrug off threats. Resilience is from the Latin resilīre to spring back, rebound. It is like grass in the wind, that gets blown over but springs back up. Robust systems tend to be highly efficient and specialised. Resilient systems tend to include strategic redundancy.

And regenerative because it is not enough to simply sustain our highly degraded environment as it is now. We have done so much damage to the intricate web of life that we need to actually start to stitch it back together. Not ripping it further is no longer enough.

Permaculture takes natural systems as the best model of how to do this. It looks at the characteristics of natural systems and asks how we can design those kinds of characteristics into a human centred system? Permaculture design is most usually applied to land management systems, but has also been the organising philosophy behind things like the Transition Towns movement. There is a growing interest in applying permaculture design to business and economic development and you can see it’s influence in things like the 8 principles of Regenerative Capitalism developed by John Fullerton and Hunter Lovins.

Permaculture begins with three ethics – Earth care, people care, fair share (or share the surplus). In contrast, capitalism is fundamentally based around the accumulation of capital, and the pursuit of self-interest and greed as the highest value. A permaculture economics is not about accumulation and the self but is based on cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

A permaculture designer takes many things into account in producing a design and I don’t have time to do a complete survey of how those ideas would apply in developing permacultural economics, but I wanted to touch on a couple of brief illustrations of how that might look. I thought I’d start by playing with two or three of David Holmgrem’s 12 design principles of permaculture.

The first of those is Observe and Interact. Holmgren says “By taking the time to engage with nature and society we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.” In contrast, neo-liberalism offers a ‘one size fits all’ solution to any problem – less regulation and more private property. The only observation required is the rate of growth.

A permaculture economy would begin with the specifics of a place and a people. It would look at a range of indicators before proposing any solutions – a property designer would look at a range of soils tests, but also make a careful observation of indicator plants, energy flows on site, potential micro-climates. Ideally this observation would be over a full time cycle so as to understand temporal patterns and changes. Similarly an economic design would look at a range of social indicators, to understand the local economic possibilities that a place holds. Kind of the opposite to the Christchurch rebuild it would seem.

If we take the dairy industry as an example, milk prices are the only things that people seem to talk about very much, but an observation of farm ownership patterns, debt levels, declining profitability, social and psychological stress among farmers, changing rural demographics and loss of community would suggest that even when there are high milk prices, something in the system is wrong.

Another principle is to Catch and Store Energy. Holmgren says that by developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need. The saying “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have a limited time to catch and store energy, for later use.

Permaculture systems are not designed to maximise efficiency or profit. The are designed to find a balance that values all kinds of yields from the system, including profit but also relationships, quality of life, ecological diversity and such. During times of plenty, as the dairy industry has recently experienced until this year, a permacultural approach would be to catch and store financial energy, by using high returns to invest in sustainability and resilience. This might mean reducing debt, improving land management, up-skilling workers or a myriad of other on and off farm investments. Under the leadership of Fonterra, the Government and the banks, however, many farmers were encouraged to take on debt to expand and grow their operations – an approach that values efficiency but to the detriment of system resilience.

In contrast, Margaret’s talk tonight about savings pools demonstrates one way that we can proactively create systems to catch and store financial energy within our local communities rather than allow it to drain away as dividends to shareholders in overseas banks.

The principle of applying self-regulation and accepting feedback tells us that we need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. We note that negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

A permaculture economy would self consciously build in feedback loops and pay attention to those already existing. One of the feedback loops that has been systematically removed from the current economic model is the true cost of doing business. I recall coming to Christchurch in 2005 to campaign against Graeme Hart and Meadowfresh ending the reuse of glass milk bottle in Christchurch. It is a small example of the way that a cost of doing business that had previously been internalised by the company – that is, the after-use processing of the container – was externalised to the community. By getting rid of the process of collecting, washing and reusing milk bottles, Meadowfresh saved money. By moving to disposable containers which are thrown in the rubbish, they transferred those cost to the community. The price of the milk no longer reflects the cost of dealing with the container.

This externalising costs has always been a failing of the market system. People talk about corporate capitalism privatising profits and externalising costs. So petrol prices do not reflect the costs of climate change, ecological devastation in the Niger Delta or the costs of treating respiratory diseases. The price of food rarely reflects the true costs of production in terms of soil loss, habitat loss, chemical inputs into the environment or, in the case of pastoral farming, declining water quality and impact on climate change. In general, corporations have been aggressively externalising costs as quickly as they can in a bid to improve profitability.

One way of internalising costs, and so adding in a price related feedback loop to customers, is by the use of Pigovian taxes. These are taxes added to products on the basis of their externalised costs. If products carry the true cost of production, price will favour the least ecologically and socially destructive product. To be most beneficial, these taxes need to be revenue neutral, that is any increased tax take should be given back to the community by cutting tax on the first $10,000 or so of income. These kinds of measures are strongly resisted in the current framework – for example pricing carbon as a bid to internalise those costs is enormously unpopular from those industries that most need to receive those feedback loops, such as dairy farming.

These are just a few introductory thoughts about how permacultural systems design thinking can be applied to economics. It is an area that has hardly been explored and one that I feel has huge potential for us as we collectively try to turn our society from a hetereotelic to a homeotelic one.

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  1. James Edwards says:

    Kia ora Nandor,

    I am pleased to see you articulating a very important topic, that of the intimate relationship between political economy and nature. I think we need to be clear that the separation of the so-called economic science and politics is an artificial political construct designed specifically to defend the prevailing social order from the demands of the emerging social movements, especially those of the increasingly powerful challenge from the working classes.

    I have read widely on the subject for several years now and it is my ambition to formulate a permaculture political economic that is compatible with the principles of permaculture and more fundamentally those of the natural, ecological processes, drawing upon a variety of sources from the domains of political theory, psychology, economic and financial history., and the physical sciences.

    I have accumulated a wealth of relevant source material over the years and its just a matter of distilling it into a cohesive epistemology and in order to convey the knowledge and understanding to others, an educational pedagogy. Its an ambitious, though entirely achievable mission, though one which I can not achieve alone. I have no formal training in “economics” for which I am rather thankful, because it leaves me at liberty to challenge its fundamental precepts and most cherished sacred cows.

    I have had some experience in the field of economic and political policy, because a number of years ago I worked as a research assistant for the Sustento Institute, where I was responsible for contributing towards the development of a proposal for a universal basic income in New Zealand. The director of the Institute was Raf Manji who is now a Councillor in the Christchurch District Council and is the head of their Finance Committee. Sadly the proposal did not gain any traction in the political sphere despite Raf having worked in finance with the Prime Minister.

    I am now an itinerant worker now working in the hospitality/tourism industry, but I am still relatively young and without independents so I value the freedom such a lifestyle affords me, but this does not mean I am satisfied with the lot of myself or those in a similar position nor am I supportive of a political system which channels the majority of economic value into the hands of a wealthy and powerful few with tremendous damage to the physical and social environment.

  2. James says:

    hello Nandor,

    That would be great. I would appreciate the opportunity. I’m currently based in Oamaru, but will be in the North Island during the Christmas period. I have friends who will be living in Gisborne. I may have time to come over to the Bay of Plenty to meet up if you’re keen.

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