Category Archives: Social ecology

To Thine Own Self Be True

(Profile piece on me by Jenny Michie in local Plenty magazine August 2017)

Nandor Tanczos may well have one of the most mispronounced names in the country. Certainly in my head he’s always been Nandor Tandor but I know that’s not right, so while his dog and my dog establish sprawling space at the café where we meet, I need to establish the correct way to say his name.

It’s two syllables – first one is Tahnt – rhymes with aunt. Second is zosh. So Tahnt-zosh. My first name is said Naan-dor with a long ‘a’ like the bread” he explains with a smile. I suspect he’s had this conversation before. And with that outa the way and our respective hounds equally sorted, we can begin.

Nandor Tanczos is an immigrant; his father was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising and his Cape Coloured mother left South Africa as it was constructing the brutal racial segregation that was Apartheid. Respectively his parents were a refrigeration engineer and a Home Economics teacher/entrepreneur, so we can assume education and hard work were important family values. They found sanctuary in England, where Nandor and his brother were born, and in 1974 the family immigrated to New Zealand.

Being an early and avid reader, young Nandor had great expectations of coming to a land where Maori culture was dominant. His visions of living in a raupō whare and wearing a puipui to a country school were dashed somewhat when the family moved to Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore. A wonderful place to grow up, digging for pipi on the beach and working in the local dairy for milkshakes and peanut slabs, but not a multicultural experience.

However, those early days as a new migrant gave Nandor both empathy for others, especially second-generation immigrants, and started his own path of self-discovery.

My whole life has been a journey of recreating an identity and sense of belonging, in a way”.

At 14 he spent a year in Hungary with his grandparents. The complete immersion and living under a communist regime had a profound influence on the teenager from Takapuna and fuelled a desire to become a journalist. The family relocated back to England when he finished school and he promptly enrolled in a journalism course in the North of England. Only to drop out towards the end of it.

The reason I wanted to be a journalist was to be a fearless defender of the truth – after a while I realised that was an unlikely career outcome”.

Then followed a complete immersion of another sort. In Thatcher’s Britain there was much to protest and this he did. During the year-long Miners’ Strike the government froze the union’s strike fund; Nandor was on the ground and collected money for the workers, though he was physically prevented from entering mining villages in the North. “That was the first time I’d ever seen the police used so explicitly as a political force. What I saw in Britain was the police used to destroy a movement.”

He was also involved in the anti-nuclear movement and lived on the road; campaigning for peace.

Coming back to New Zealand in 1985 Nandor was keen to continue his studies to understand the world and make it a better place. During his last year at Waikato University he had a Road to Damascus experience with his discovery of Rastafari. “It wasn’t that I became a Rastafari, it’s just that when I discovered who and what Rastafari was, I realised that’s exactly what I was already.”

We of a slightly older generation have known Nandor (in the way that one ever really knows a public figure) since 1999 when he entered Parliament as the dreadlock-wearing, skate-boarding, civil rights and hemp-promoting young Rastafarian List MP for the Green Party. I was working in Parliament at the time and he was a far cry from the usual crop of MPs, both in looks and attitude.

Nandor did in fact introduce a bill to allow hemp production, which was then illegal (it’s a great source of nutrition as well as cloth and the traditional hemp rope) but the Labour-led government of the time decided it was such a good idea “We’re going to think of it ourselves”. They voted his bill down and introduced their own legislation which effectively did the same thing (but not as effectively he says).

Nevertheless, it is still an issue that Nandor is passionate about, but not in the way many people would think.

We’ve taken pastoral farming to an extreme,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of places where we’re trying to grow dairy cows and it’s just not good land use – such as the Canterbury Plains. Our number one environmental issue – and this is true around the world – is pastoral farming. Hemp production, whilst not a magic bullet, is part of the solution of creating mosaics of productive use; that is exploiting the specific niches and microclimates that are in our landscapes instead of this paint-roller effect where we say we’re just going to grow grass everywhere and put cows on it.”

This is in fact permaculture. Nandor’s pet project, which brings us back to how he came to be here in the Bay of Plenty some years after leaving Parliament, which was his ‘home’ for almost nine years (he left after realizing if he stayed any longer, he wouldn’t want to leave, so comfortable is that particular golden cage).

Nandor’s wife is from Murupara and the family moved to the Bay several years ago. But even without his wife’s roots to the Bay, Nandor has long held a torch for this place.

Lots of sunshine, it’s beautiful, it’s got some of the richest history in the country, both Māori and Pākeha; it’s one of the earliest places for Maori settlement and it’s a stronghold of te reo Maori – people are still growing up here as native speakers. And we’ve got this amazing geology. The earth moves, it’s so alive!”

They intend to stay. Nandor says he feels more at home here than anywhere else in the country, partly because it’s so welcoming. “There’s loads of beautiful places but in a lot of smaller centres you get the feeling that if you weren’t born and bred there you’re never quite going to belong.”

Last year Nandor was elected to the Whakatane District Council. After so many years in Parliament, why enter local government? “There’s so many amazing things going on here but I felt there was a disconnection, things aren’t quite integrated together.” And this is where his passion about permaculture comes into play. The essence of which is to link things together to create beneficial relationships.

I see the potential for this area to be leader in sustainability, in resilience, in regenerative economic and community development and so I felt like I had a useful perspective to bring to the politics of the place.”

So in two year’s time what is a job well done on Council going to look like? “Apart from competently doing the basic work, the day to day stuff that needs to be done well to keep things moving, there’s a few things that I want to see some progress on.”

One of them is the Awatapu Reserve, a lagoon formed by the diversion of the Whakatane River in the 1950s. The original area is called Otamakaokao and a group of locals has started a kaitiaki group and is engaging with the community and council to restore the mauri of the area. “The water is really degraded because it was cut off from the river, so it’s dying. So we’ve got this project to bring it back to life and I’d like to see some real progress on this – it’s about ecological restoration, about community development and also about food security. I want to see a management plan for the reserve which is grounded in what the community wants.”

Another marker of success would be real progress towards solar power, where we are seeing solar panels on public buildings and some kind of process for helping households into solar hot water.”

Here Nandor sets me right on the Council consent fees for solar panels. I thought there was a hefty fee but in fact there are no consent fees for putting solar panels on your house. “A proposal came to council to start charging fees for solar, but Council decided not to do that. Actually the Mayor was very strong on it. But I’d like to see more done. Whakatane is regularly the sunshine capital and yet there’s barely any solar power here. I’ve got a 3 point solar plan for the District and I want to make progress on that.”

The third area where he’d like to see progress is in the creative sector, and he really sees the creative industries as a cornerstone in the economic development of the area.

Creative workers bring their own work with them; when they work in that sector, they often work primarily online and we’ve got UF broadband here. You can do what you do and live in the most beautiful part of the country. So at the minimum we need a clear strategy in place as to how we are going support the creative sector in this District.”

I’m a huge fan of this idea. I’ve long thought Whakatane should be to the North Island what Nelson is to the South – a natural home for the creative arts.

Nandor wraps up the interview by bringing us back to permaculture.

Most people apply permaculture to land use, around small holdings and lifestyle blocks, but what I teach is social permaculture.” And it is important to recall here that he’s got a postgraduate diploma in management and sustainability from Waikato University and is working on a thesis around applying permaculture design to economic development.

The great model of sustainability is nature itself. So we need to look at what are the characteristics of natural systems and how we can apply that to our own economic systems. And when you start to do that, it’s a very fruitful way of looking at things.”

Despite not being able to sensibly pronounce his name, I’ve kept an eye on Nandor Tanczos for over 20 years. He was an interesting man in Parliament and he is now an interesting man here in the Bay of Plenty, with tangible goals to improve the area and the people in it. What I didn’t realize then but do now is that he also possesses a quality that I’m valuing more and more the older I get. It seems the wise advice Polonius gave to his son Laertes in Hamlet – “To thine own self be true” – embodies the man sitting across from me.

Plus, he’s got a dog. Need I say more?

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Speech to Whakatane Grey Power

LIVICATION AND THANKS TO ORGANISERS

 
Many people think they know who I am – that cannabis guy or the skateboarder. Perhaps you even saw something about the work I did as an MP – my clean slate bill to conceal people’s minor offences after 7 years without re-offending, or the Waste Minimisation Act that I introduced to Parliament and shepherded to near unanimous support, to promote less waste and more recycling. But even if you had seen every article written about me as an MP, you would still have a very distorted view of what kind of person I am. That’s the nature of media.

 
So I thought I’d start today by introducing myself.

 
Ko Tisza te awa – the Tisza is my river. My fathers ancestors have lived on the banks of the Tisza, in Hungary, for a thousand years and for many hundreds of years we have been boat people, barging goods up and down it and into the Duna, the mighty Danube.

 
Many of my cousins still live on its banks, in a city called Szeged. I don’t, of course, because in 1956 my father, who was a marine engineering student, returned to College in Budapest from a break visitng family and when he stepped off the train at midnight he found himself in the middle of an armed uprising. What had begun as a peaceful student demonstration to call for greater freedom had turned into a revolution after the secret police opened fire on the demonstrators and killed a number of them. The Hungarians rose up against the Russian military occupation of their country that had been there since WWII, organised themselves into militias to fight the Russians, formed a revolutionary government and withdrew from the Warsaw Pact.

 
The Hungarians actually managed to achieve freedom for a few weeks. They set up Workers Councils and Village Councils to run the country. The Russians began talks with the revolutionary government saying they were willing to negotiate a withdrawal of Russian forces, at the same time they began secretly amassing tanks near the border. When they felt the time was ripe they invited the head of the revolutionary army Pal Meleter to talks and kidnapped and executed him. Then they brought in the tanks.

 
The retribution was brutal. 2500 Hungarians were killed. Denouncements and mass arrests continued for many months. The revolutionary prime minister, Imre Nagy, was also arrested and executed. 200,000 fled across the border into Austria and became refugees, including my father – who ended up being accepted into Britain a year or so later.

 
I really honour my father. He is a man of principle, of honour and courage. Life is never easy for refugees and he managed to make a good life for himself in England and here in Aotearoa, contribute to society and be a good father to me and my brother.

 
Ko Hoerikwaggo te maunga – my mountain is Hoerikwaggo – Table Mountain, the Mountain that Floats in the Sea. Before any Bantu tribes came to South Africa, before the Zulu, the Xhosa, the Pondo, Sotho or Ndebele, the original people of South Africa were the different nations of the Khoi Khoi and the Khoi San – the Gorinqua, Koranna, nama etc. What people call the bushmen. The Khoi traded with the Dutch East India Company when they first began to use the Cape as a provisioning stop on the way to their colonies in South East Asia. Soon Dutch demand outstripped their willingness to supply so the Dutch began to steal their cattle. Eventually they took land by force to set up Dutch farmers to supply the ships. At the same time the Zulu and other more northern tribes were expanding south. The khoi were caught between two expanding empires and were crushed. Although remnants of Khoi culture survives in places like the Kalahari Desert, by and large khoi were either assimilated into the Bantu peoples as they moved south or into the settlement at Cape Town, where they formed the core of what was to become the Cape Coloured.

 
So those are my mother’s people. We are descended from Khoi, Dutch, English, German and no doubt others as well.

 
My mother is, like my father, courageous. Although she grew up in a small town along the coast, she was well educated for that time. My grandparents were teachers and she had been to boarding school in Cape Town. In the early 1950’s her cousin said she was going to go to London and that my mother should come. She agreed, and even though her cousin pulled out in the end, she decided to go anyway. It was by boat in those days of course. She had a letter of introduction to someone in London and so she went, got herself a job and built a new life or herself in a new land.

 
She lived in London for a number of years before she met my father and they got married. When my brother was born, my father was still unable to return home for fear of arrest for his part in the uprising, so she took my brother by train to Hungary to meet his grandparents. Travelling behind the Iron Curtain was at that time unheard of for a woman in her position. She spoke no Hungarian and the family spoke no English, yet she went without hesitation.

 
My older brother and I were both born in England. The family came to Aotearoa in the mid 1970’s and I finished school here. Over my life I have lived in Hungary for a time and in the UK for a number of years. I have been involved in grass-roots political organising all my life. I also have run a number of businesses, got myself a university degree, been an MP for almost 9 years and married a local woman from Murupara. Even before I met her I was drawn to this area, to its beauty, its rich cultural landscape, its raw energy, and we talked about moving here for many years. In 2014 we finally did, and it is everything we hoped.

 
So now you have a better idea of who I am. If you will allow me, let me also share a little about what interests me the most right now.

 
PERMACULTURE
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. Indigenous culture, whether Polynesian, European, African, Asian or American, often after causing massive ecological changes including extinctions, had to find a balance with the ecology that it was now part of, and it did. Over hundreds and thousands of years human culture found a life-enhancing balance with its place. Industrial culture, however, is different. 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.

 
It is that system, in fact, which has brought us to the point where we are approaching or have already exceeded a number of critical ecological thresholds beyond which abrupt and catastrophic changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur. Human beings rely on wild species for our very survival – they pollinate our crops, purify our air and clean our water, among a host of other things. Yet we stand on the brink of the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history, an extinction caused by human action.

 
So this word ‘homeotelic’ was a bit of a revelation for me, because it showed me really clearly what our most important 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. To transform our economic system, which reduces all other values (ecological, social, aesthetic) to the financial, which relies on continued, never-ending growth to balance the books. 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 essentially what we must all do.

 
How do we do it?

 
There are no simple or easy answers to that question. If any of you (and I suspect and hope that many of you have) tried to grapple with what it really means to become even sustainable, never mind to live in a way that maintains and enhances the integrity of life on this planet, then you will appreciate that this is something we are having to figure out as we go along. With all our compromises, inadequacies and paradoxes. And that is ok – I drove a car to get here, but that just means I accept I am not perfect. It doesn’t mean I stop trying. But we must face the reality of the world that we live in and accept that we MUST change, in ways we don’t even understand right now, but that we have to begin and we have to be serious about it. For the sake not just of our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, but for all of life that we share this beautiful planet with.

 
What’s more, in changing, we have the possibility of creating a far better life than we enjoy right now. One where human well-being rather than money is the measure – because despite what economists will tell us, they are not the same thing. One where community, relationships, helping each other out, a beautiful and healing environment are more valued than how much we have in the bank or in a portfolio.

 
Having said that there are no simple answers, I think there are many pieces of the puzzle already in our hands.

 
For me, one of the most important is Permaculture Systems Design. In fact Permaculture 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. There is a lot of confusion and imprecise thinking around this term ‘sustainable’ but for me it is quite simple. Sustainability just means good economics – spending income not capital, whether we are talking about financial capital, social capital or natural capital. In terms of environmental sustainability, that means harvesting in a way that does not exceed regeneration rates and not emitting wastes beyond the natural assimilation rates of ecosystems.

 
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 and withstand shocks. 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. It is about the ability to recover from system shocks, even system failure. Robust systems tend to be highly efficient and specialised. Resilient systems tend to include strategic redundancy. With all the uncertainty in the world today, ensuring a capacity for resilience is IMO one of the most important things we can do.

 
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. This is an international grass-roots movement that began in Cornwall in England and seeks to build community resilience and economic resilience in the face of climate change, resource depletion, and social and financial instability. Their guiding principle is that we used extraordinary creativity to power up our current energy intensive civilisation and we will use the same amount of creativity as we (by necessity) power down, to create a more human centred and more enjoyable way of living.

 
There is also 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.

 
So what is Permaculture? It begins with three ethics – Earth care, people care, fair share (or share the surplus). In contrast, neo-liberalism is fundamentally based around 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. I’d argue that this is more in line with normal human behaviour, and our natural human impulse

 
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 permacultural community development, 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 community design would look at a range of social indicators, to understand the local possibilities that a place holds.

 
If we take a place like Whakatane, for example, it would begin with a real engagement with all the different elements of the community, to provide opportunities for people to share their ideas about what they want their community to look like, how they think things could be improved. It starts with talking to the people affected by decisions – not as a box-ticking exercise but because decisions tend to be better if the people involved get to have a say.

 
A good example is the recent redesign of the Pak n Save in Kopeopeo. I’d say it was designed by someone in Auckland or Wellington, who has never worked on a supermarket checkout. Probably someone who has barely even been in a supermarket actually. In frustration, I recently asked one of the check-out staff if they had been consulted about the design. She looked at me like I was mad. But honestly, if you were going to redesign a supermarket, wouldn’t the first thing you do be to ask the people who actually work there how to make it work better?

 
I was listening to a similar thing on National Radio the other morning, about a doctor who had involved the families of children in oncology wards in discussing how to improve things for them. The result – massive improvements not just in terms of pain reduction, but also safer practise, better use of hospital resources, cost savings. It seems obvious, yet this kind of approach is almost revolutionary in these contexts.

 
So I think this is a general principle. Ask the people affected what they think, and ask early in the process rather than as a box ticking exercise at the end.

 
Councils of course are required by law to consult the community on their long term plans, but this is usually seen in terms of how council can get the community to endorse what the council already plans to do. I’m not targeting WDC, this is true almost everywhere, but where is the opportunity for the community to really have a say about what its long term vision is for itself? I was in Taranaki a couple of years ago and the NPDC was running a stall at the market, asking people in a very open ended way what they wanted their community to look like in 50 years time. I was really impressed, because to me that is what councils should be doing – genuinely engaging their people in a broad discussion about their vision for their community. And in line with the permaculture principle to value diversity, that needs to include all parts of the community – from Grey Power to Youth groups, from police to gangs.

 
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. To put that another way, this principle speaks to the imperative to build up capital stocks for the future.

 
Permaculture systems are not designed to maximise efficiency or profit. Rather than ‘foot to the floor’ they are designed to find that cruising sweet spot that leaves a bit of acceleration to spare for when it is needed. Its 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 experienced until recently, 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. Some farmers did indeed take this path and are now in a viable position during the downturn. Under the leadership of Fonterra, and with the encouragement of 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.

 
Another form of energy that we waste is that of our young people. We invest enormous energy in raising them, educating them and preparing them for life, and then watch them leave our community because of a lack of social and economic opportunity. The council’s economic development plan seems to consist of building a retirement village, which is not itself a bad idea if we leave aside the question of where they intend to put it, but it is not in itself an answer. My question is, what are we doing for young people in this town? The consultation on the Long Term Community Plan didn’t mention them once that I could see. Keeping young people in our community by creating opportunities for them is critical if we want our community to thrive.

 
CONCLUSION
These are just a few introductory thoughts about how permacultural systems design thinking can be applied to community development. What really interests me is how we apply this kind of thinking to this specific locality. As a newcomer to the area I actually think that this could easily become a national and international example of sustainability, resilience and regenerativity. We have an amazing climate, an incredibly rich ecological, social and cultural landscape, creative and innovative people, young people hungry for work and experience, and a community minded population (as evidence by things like this very organisation) – we have all the ingredients we need. What we seem to lack is a compelling vision.

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Permaculture research methodology

This is an excerpt from my research proposal for a Masters thesis on applying permaculture design to business. It is an initial, if inadequate, attempt to sketch out what a permaculture research methodology means:

 

Permaculture Systems Design (PSD) offers its own research methodology, which can help to inform the research design and interpretation of the results. In PSD, the starting point is always the ethics – earth care, people care, fair share (share the surplus). This becomes the ground from which a permacultural system is evaluated, somewhat akin to the Triple Bottom Line of environmental, social and economic sustainability. Following from this, the first part of the design process begins with a social and physical site analysis, to examine the larger context within which the system operates, the social and physical energy flows that intercept the system and the location and proximity of zones of activity within the system. Various social and physical indicators can inform this analysis, to gain a sense of the underlying conditions. Following a contextual analysis, the 12 design principles can be applied (after Holmgren, 2002):

1. Observe and interact
The beginning of good design is understanding. Permaculture supports a process of interaction as well as observation. “A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding… there is little value in continuous observation and interpretation unless we interaction with the subject of our observations. Interaction reveals new and dynamic aspects to our subject and draws attention to our own beliefs and behaviours as instrumental to understanding” (Holmgren, 2002, pp 13 – 14).

2. Catch and store energy
Energy is the driving force behind all natural and human systems, and tends to come periodically. If we understand the temporal and spacial patterns of different forms of physical and social energy, we can harvest and store it when it is abundant for use when it is scarce. Permaculture also has a strong focus on using existing wealth to build high value stores of natural, human and economic capital for the future, including future generations.

In a research context, data is the main form of energy in question. How it is gathered and stored is of critical importance, including efficient mechanisms for its retrieval. Obviously the very process of gathering information about how to successfully design sustainable organisations is building an asset for the future, but it also requires a focus on how that knowledge will be made available for others to use. Open source research and creative commons licensing of research results are considerations here.

3. Obtain a yield
We need to use captured energy to maintain the system before we can build stocks for the future, however we also need to think creatively about what kinds of yields are available to us. As mentioned above, rethinking value is a critical element of building sustainable systems. Evidence from agricultural studies suggests that some of the most productive systems are not necessarily the most profitable (Sial, Iqbal, & Sheikh, 2012) and so a consideration of the many different yields that can be obtained from the system and how those can be used to generate value of different kinds, apart from simple profit, is important

As a researcher, the question of yield is challenging. Support for research students is not generous, especially since the Government ended student support for postgraduate study. Financial yields as well as conceptual, family and community support are all important elements of a successful research project.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
It is important to develop feedback systems that discourage inappropriate behaviour within a system, as is common in natural systems. This principle speaks to the need for good supervision, constant self reflection and openness to feedback from the subjects of the research about the conduct and direction of the study. Indigenous and Kaupapa Maori methodologies have well developed thinking around placing the agency of the subjects of research at the centre of the research design (eg Smith, 2012; Murphy, 2013)

5. Use and value renewable resources and services
Permaculture places a priority on the use of renewable services (the non-consuming use of natural systems), as well as renewable products (sustainable consumption of products derived from regenerative living systems). As a sustainability researcher it is important to ‘walk the talk’, by critically examining my own resource consumption in order reduce the ecological impact of the research. In addition, it is worth bearing in mind that the social capital that research often relies on is a renewable resource in the sense that it regenerates and tends to grow with use, but which can be exploited in an unsustainable way.

6. Produce no waste
This principle relates to traditional notions of frugality, as well as the understanding that wastes are simply outputs that are not being used productively – and have the potential to become feedstocks for another process. As a research method, it speaks to the need for well considered survey and interview questions, maximising the use of the data generated (including multiple publications out of a single research project if possible), and thinking creatively about how to disseminate the research findings beyond the academic milieu.

7. Design from patterns to details
Many permaculture principles take a bottom up approach, and so this principle reminds us to keep the big picture in view as we design. Permaculturalists such as Mollison (1992) have developed extensive teachings around the recognition, interpretation and emulation of natural and social patterns. In research methodology terms, this can be interpreted, among other things, as a reminder to understand the process of theory development and understand and design the individual research project to fit within that broader pattern (eg. Eisenhardt, 1989)

8. Integrate rather than segregate
Integration and building connections is a key component of PSD. A permaculture aphorism is that ‘each element of a design should support many system functions, and each important function should be supported by multiple elements’ and this built-in redundency is part of building system resilience. Within a research design this principle could be interpreted as, for example, the use of multiple methods to generate data, including the use of deliberative techniques that bring together research participants to build shared understanding and a deeper analysis of their practise, where feasible. It also speaks to a holistic rather than reductionist approach to data interpretation.

9. Use small and slow solutions
PSD encourages a nuanced, situation specific and responsive approach to problem solving. As such it tends to align with constructivist and inductive approaches. It warns against biting off more than one can chew in any individual research project and prematurely leaping to grand theories and assumptions that miss important details.

10. Use and value diversity
In developing an understanding of how PSD applies to business organisations, it is important to involve a diversity of business types in order to build a picture of both the commonalities and the differences in how the principles and general design approach can be interpreted. Similarly it is useful to involve a variety of participants at different locations within the organisations, where possible, as their different perspectives will offer different kinds of insights.

11. Use edges and value the marginal
In ecology, the margin between two systems is characterised by high productivity, as part of what is known as the ‘edge effect’ (Park & Allaby, 2013). This principle relates to the last to some degree – people in what might be considered marginal roles may have particularly interesting perceptions that more ‘central’ informants may not have. Certainly my own observations in doing strategic planning in an education context was that it was the ones who had been marginalised by the education system that had the most interesting observations and suggestions for improving it. A second insight around this principle relates to those on the boundaries between different social groups – the people who straddle social milieus and so provide access points and information channels between them, and can help both to recruit participants and offer deep insights of their own.

12. Creatively use and respond to change
This principle reminds us that change is a fact of life and that we need to remain flexible and responsive as researchers. By allowing the research to develop its own trajectory, we can creatively adapt to changing circumstances and make the most use of what we find rather than missing important insights in our attempts to force the research to meet our own assumptions and expectations. This again aligns with a constructivist approach to research.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building Theories from Case Study Research. The Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 532–550.

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Vic: Holmgren Design Services.

Murphy, N. (2013). Te Awa Atua =: Menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world: an examination of stories, ceremonies and practices regarding menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world: based on a Masters thesis. Ngaruawahia: He Puna Manawa Ltd.

Park, C. C., & Allaby, M. (2013). A dictionary of environment and conservation (Second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sial, M. H., Iqbal, S., & Sheikh, A. D. (2012). “FARM SIZE – PRODUCTIVITY” RELATIONSHIP: Recent Evidence from Central Punjab. Pakistan Economic and Social Review, 50(2), 139–162.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples (Second edition). London: Zed Books.

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PERMACULTURE AND ECONOMICS

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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Kama Burwell on Designing from Patterns to Details

I am starting a project to record short video clips of experienced permaculturalists critically reflecting on some element of permaculture design or practise. This is my first attempt – shaky camera, sloppy editing and all – but Kama says some interesting things and I hope it will be the start of something useful for the permaculture movement.

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Writings from the past

I was just looking for a resource I wrote many years ago and came across this. It is the preface I wrote to a book by a British ecosocialist friend of mine, Derek Wall, called “Babylon and Beyond”. I thought I’d post it here in the off-chance someone found it interesting

babylonandbeyond1

Human beings face the greatest challenge in the history of our species. We face the destruction of the life support systems on which our very existence depends, and we face it because of our own activity.

There are some who deny or diminish that threat. They mostly either retreat into fairy tale thinking – that technology, or the “free” market, or UFO’s will save us – or hope that by closing their eyes they can it go away.

Yet the evidence is mounting almost daily that the threats are very real and are gathering momentum. A new report from the UK is saying that if we don’t turn carbon emissions around in the next decade, we will not be able to stop runaway climate change whatever we do.

Authoritative voices are warning us that we are very close to the point where world demand for oil will outstrip the capacity of the oilfields to supply. Our total dependence on fossil fuels, the use of which has provided the energy for an enormous expansion of human activity and population, is like a chemical addiction. And as the USA has recently confirmed in Iraq, strip a junkie of their supply and the temptation to turn to crime can be irresistable.

“The American way of life” says George Bush the First “is not negotiable”.

A time of crisis, however, is also the time of greatest opportunity. More and more people are waking up to the need to change, to change at a fundamental level, and to change right now. People are waking up to the fact that the institutions of society that so many have put their trust in are failing us. Government won’t do it. Big business can’t do it.

Because the challenge we are facing is about more than changing a few policies or practises. It requires a fundamental rethink of what it means to be a human being. Government and business can become allies, but the power to make real change lies in the hearts and the lives of ordinary people.

It is already happening. The international people’s movement against genetically engineered (GE) plants and animals has demonstrated how the reckless agenda of multinational corporations, aided and abetted by our own governments, can be stopped in its tracks and rolled back. One conglomerate has been outed bribing government regulatory officials in Indonesia, GE companies are pulling out of the EU and Australia, and GE agriculture firms are facing massive stock market losses. The promised gold rush is proving to be a fantasy, largely because of global consumer resistence.

While the campaign has significant support in the scientific community, for many ordinary people it began as a sense that something just didn’t feel right. That feeling is often quickly backed up by investigation, but the sense of something being fundamentally arrogant and wrong about GE is the key – it is our humanness talking to us.

What is it to be human? Western society, at least, defines us as individuals whose value can be judged by what job we have, what colour credit card, what kind of car we drive and the label on our clothes.

Yet beneath these displays of status, real people are emotional, social and spiritual beings – intrinsic characteristics that cannot be considered in isolation from each other. We seem to have forgotten that our relationships – with one another and all the other beings with whom we share this beautiful planet – are fundamental to who we are.

There is a passage in the Bible that says “where there is no vision, the people perish”.

The inability to step back and clearly see and understand the “big picture” is the central problem that we face in the world today. The main motivations for Western industrial society for the past few hundred years – belief in unlimited growth and technology as the solution to all problems – are the very things that are killing us.

We cannot grow forever on a finite planet. If we continue to assume that endless growth and consumption is possible, and disregard the biosphere’s capacity to meet our greed, and if we continue to neglect social justice and fair and sustainable wealth distribution, we will reap a bitter harvest.

Neither will technology on its own fix the problem. Yes, we need better technology, more efficient technology that uses non-polluting cyclical processes and that does not depend on fossil fuels. But just more technology will not do, because the problem is in us and the way we see ourselves in the world.

We humans think that we can own the planet, as if fleas could own a dog. Our concepts of property ownership are vastly different from traditional practises of recognising use rights over various resources. A right to grow or gather food or other resources in a particular place is about meeting needs. Property ownership is about the ability to live on one side of the world and speculate on resources on the other, possibly without ever seeing it, without regard to need or consequence.

The ability to “own” property is fundamental to capitalism. Since the first limited liability companies – the Dutch and British East India Companies – were formed, we have seen the kidnapping and enslavement of 20 – 60 million African people and the rape, murder and exploitation of indigenous people around the world. Colonisation was primarily about mercantile empires, not political ones. It was all about forcing indigenous, communitarian people to accept private individual ownership of resources, which could then be alienated, either by being bought or stolen. The subsequent political colonisation was just about how to enforce that ownership.

Today property rights are being extended through GATT and TRIPS agreements and through institutions such as the WTO and the World Bank. Private property rights are being imposed over public assets such as water, intellectual property and, through genetic engineering and biopiracy, on DNA sequences. Even traditional healing plants are under threat. In Aotearoa – New Zealand we have had multinationals attempting to patent piko piko and other native plants. This is all part of the “free” trade corporate globalisation agenda – to create tradeable rights over our common wealth, accumulate ownership and then sell back to us what is already ours.

This is only possible because we have lost our place in the scheme of things. We think of the environment as something “over there”, as something separate from human activity, something to either be exploited or protected. The reality is that we are as much part of the environment and the planet as the trees, insects and birds.

It is time to relearn what it means to be human.

Babylon and Beyond, the economics of anti-capatalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements by Derek Wall. Printed by Pluto Press

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