This is an amazing moment in history. Young people, sick of seeing decades of denial, procrastination and evasion on climate change from political and business leaders are taking to the streets. School children are striking from school. Youth are organising direct action movements. People are demanding action.
They need to. Local Government New Zealand has drafted a Climate Change Declaration setting out some principles and aspirations for how local government can address the challenges of climate change. It is not radical – it asks councils to promote walking and public transport, improve resource efficiency and healthy homes and support renewable energy and electric vehicles. It recognises that local government needs to work with central government and with their communities.
Some 56 councils have signed but around 24 still refuse to do so. Thames-Coromandel Mayor Sandra Goudie says that the issue is ‘politically charged’ (because politics is anathema for a politician!). Meanwhile the West Coast Regional Council is opposing the Government’s Zero Carbon bill because “the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt”. Apparently near unanimous agreement in the international scientific community is not sufficient.
Here in Whakatāne, climate change is already real for us. The flooding in Edgecumbe last year put our vulnerability to rising sea levels and increased storms into sharp focus. We know we can expect more of that. We know that the water table in the Rangitaiki Plains – once a wetland covering some 300km2 – is rising. A number of our people live under escarpments, along the coastline or clustered around our rivers. We have no room for complacency.
Like much of local government, our council has been developing scattered pieces of work over the years, adjusting our district plan to incorporate climate change related hazards, but it has been piecemeal. There have been some attempts in the past to develop a Sustainability Strategy, but that never really went very far. What the organisation needed was more leadership at a political level, more strategic governance that recognises the real threat that climate change poses for our council and for our community. That leadership is now there.
Our Mayor, Tony Bonne, gets it. He signed the Mayors Declaration as soon as he found out about it. The issues of climate change and of sustainability are now being regularly raised around the council table, and not just by me. There is, I think, a strong acceptance around the table that climate change is real, that it poses a significant threat, and that we need to address it hand in hand with our communities.
In our organisation we are taking real steps. Our new CEO, Steph O’Sullivan, has a strong background understanding of climate change, of resilience and of partnering across communities, businesses and with the Crown. We have developed a high level Climate Change Steering Group with representation from senior leadership and with myself as the political representation. We have a Climate Change Project Team that has representation from the people that will be implementing our strategies. We are developing Climate Change principles based on the LGNZ declaration but drilling down into how they apply to our district, with input from across the organisation. The key thing about those principles is that they will flow through into decision-making across the organisation so that sustainability becomes embedded into decision-making rather than remaining a clip-on.
We have begun the process of bench-marking our own emissions so that we can improve and change, by signing up to the CEMARS programme. We have also done an energy audit to see where our bulk energy use is and how we can reduce it. That has given us a number of potential places where we can save money and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The next step is a more detailed investigation to see which of those possibilities might work in practice. This includes exploring the potential for adding solar generation to our buildings, which has highlighted that we need to address our approach to new public buildings and incorporate basic sustainable building design principles – something we have so far failed to do.
Council needs to address our own emissions, our own robustness (ability to withstand shocks), and our own resilience (ability to spring back from shocks). This is about showing leadership. Perhaps even more importantly, though, we need to be leading a deep discussion in our communities. Neither council nor government will ‘fix’ climate change. We can help or hinder but the most significant decisions will be made elsewhere. In this district, for example, the decisions around land use are critical both in terms of our emissions as a district and in terms of how we adapt to climate change. Council has an important role in making sure that people have good information when they make their own decisions about their homes, their businesses, their farms, their marae. We need community discussions that are non-judgemental, open and honest, and resourced with reliable information.
That process has begun, even though it has a long way to go. Whakatāne Ki Mua is the biggest community engagement that council has ever done, establishing a foundation for what the community wants for our communities. The GreenPrint forums have been exploring sustainability, resilience and regenerative design for our district and that has led to two community initiatives – Waste Zero and the Food Sovereignty network. A number of cool projects are being showcased during this months Sustainable Backyards which, for Whakatāne, is based out of Wharaurangi. In making that site available to Envirohub for the month, council has also committed to engaging our community around climate change, as the first step towards that deep discussion.
The horizon on climate change doesn’t stop in 2080 or 2100. The world will keep warming, oceans will keep rising, storms will keep getting stronger regardless of what we do. However we can influence how much worse it will get, for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Imagine what our own great grandparents would say to us if we refuse to act now, when we know.
This isn’t about blame or judgement, it is about coming together to talk about how we are going to respond, collectively and individually, to this challenge. Most importantly it is about recognising climate change as an opportunity. Not for a few people to enrich themselves, but to genuinely change how we do things. We can create a future that is better than our past and present. By becoming genuinely sustainable and resilient, by building stronger community networks and looking out for each other, we can solve not just climate change but many of our other issues as well. Climate is just a symptom of a deeper problem. We have become disconnected from the rest of life and we have become disconnected from each other. The results are not just ecological but social, economic and cultural. Redesigning our way of life to put people and planet at the centre is worth doing regardless of climate change. Climate change is just the driver.
The term ‘permaculture’ was first coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and is a contraction of ‘permanent culture’. The basic qualification is the Permculture Design Certificate. Some of the practises and ideas that were once radical or groundbreaking have become widespread, both in food production (e.g. mulching gardens for soil conditioning and water retention) and increasingly in the sustainable business literature (many of the principles in The Blue Economy and in Natural Capitalism reflect permaculture thinking). Even so, permaculture as a whole-systems design approach still has much to offer to a world in transition.
It is increasingly obvious that humans are at a crisis point. We have created a civilisation that is in fundamental conflict with the natural world. Our great environmental challenges, including climate change, water degradation, soil loss and mass extinction of species are all symptoms of this. The global economy, with its imperative for endless cumulative growth, is reaching the ecological boundaries of our planet. If we want to have a future where humans can thrive, we need to transform. We need to redesign our way of life to become deeply sustainable, creatively resilient and intrinsically regenerative.
Sustainability, Resilience and Regeneration
Being sustainable simply means being able to keep going indefinitely. Sustainability practises often focus on resource efficiency and the substitution of harmful materials, however the Jevons Paradox shows that highly efficient use of resources per unit can lead to increased net resource use. We must consciously address overall levels of consumption.
We need to also focus on resilience – the ability to recover from disruption and to bounce back – given an increasingly uncertain world. Resilience often comes from strategic redundancy, or having ‘fat’ in the system and is often in tension with strategies to make things stronger and more robust.
Regeneration recognises that sustainably managing a degraded environment is not enough. We have slashed so many strands of the web of life that we need to actively stitch it back together by enhancing ecological integrity wherever we can.
The basic premise of permaculture is that systems already exist which are sustainable, resilient and regenerative. These are natural systems. The more we can understand the processes by which natural systems unfold and develop and the more we can grasp the principles and characteristics of ecology, the more harmonious and life-sustaining our own systems can become.
Permaculture begins with three ethical underpinnings: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Earth Care recognises that we are part of the natural world and that in the most literal way our lives and our well-being derive from it. All of our systems must make provision for life systems to continue and multiply at all levels.
People Care is about creating systems that enhance our humanity. People are complex multi dimensional beings with an innate drive to create, to explore and to express ourselves. We are also social beings so healthy relationships with each other, with our kin, our community, our culture are all vital to our well-being.
Fair share, sometimes expressed as ‘share the surplus’ is an ethic of generosity. This is in contrast to the ethic of selfishness and accumulation which is at the heart of neoliberalism. Excessive accumulation and personal consumption leads to insecurity and instability and only by sharing resources more justly can we become genuinely sustainable. By being modest with our own consumption we can set resources aside to support the broader transformation needed.
Out of the permaculture ethics comes a series of design principles. They arise from the contemplation of nature, observation of indigenous and traditional practises and from science – in particular the sciences of ecology and of physics. There is no single definitive list of them, but David Holmgren’s 12 Design Principles are perhaps the best known and most cohesive articulation.
However, permaculture is not just about memorising a formula. It is more about understanding the underlying patterns that exist in nature and applying them to the specific circumstances. When we say design by nature, it is not a metaphor, but an acknowledgement that in any situation a set of self-organising forces already exist that we need to recognise and integrate with our own intent.
Permaculture, then, begins with thoughtful observation and interaction. When developing a property, permaculturists are encouraged to spend a year on their land before doing anything major. This allows time to observe the seasonal changes and to see the pre-existing patterns in the ecosystem. Within a tighter time-frame, careful observation can still indicate where the energy and resource stocks and flows are, the water, sun, wind, nutrients, wildlife and people. We can observe the niches and microclimates, the natural pathways of people and animals and where the biggest opportunities are.
Essentially the same process takes place when applying permaculture design to a social or economic project. We attempt to draw out the latent potential of a ‘site’ rather than impose an artificial concept developed in isolation from the real situation.
Food Forests – an illustration
Food forests are not a universal solution, but they do offer a good illustration of how permaculture design principles can come together. Rather than a monoculture orchard with rows and rows of a single variety of a single species with bare poisoned earth between them, a food forest is a polyculture that attempts to mimic a natural forest, but one that is based around human need.
A food forest will be diverse in species, which builds resilience to disease and provides a wider range of yields. It will include some leguminous trees, perhaps grouped with different species of fruit trees, to fix nitrogen and act as an insect break. A forest is layered horizontally and temporally so it might have: canopy trees for fruits, nuts and timber; low trees for fruit and coppicing; shrubs for berries and weaving materials; herbaceous bushes for teas, dyes, medicines, mulching; rooting plants for food and to cultivate the soil; soil covers such as fungi, strawberries, culinary herbs; and climbers that penetrate all the layers. Plants will fruit at different times to assure a year-round supply of food and animals may be part of the system, to control insects and plants, and to manure the ground. The ground itself may be ploughed or contoured into swales to trap water and nutrients using a keyline approach.
Perhaps more than anything, permaculture is about increasing the beneficial relationships between things. A permaculture maxim is that every element should fulfil multiple functions, and every function should be supported by multiple elements. In a food forest, for example, a herbaceous plant might be used as a tea or aromatic, to attract beneficial (predatory) insects, to attract pollinators, to mine minerals from sub-soils, and/or to release gases to help ripening.
The self-sustaining ecosystem can be a metaphor for a horticultural food production system, grasslands agriculture, a whole economy, a series of industrial processes, a community organisation or a single business . All of the many characteristics of a healthy ecosystem: diversity, complex associations, layering, making use of locally available and abundant resources, developing feedback loops, building energy stores, can be usefully applied to foster sustainability, resilience and regenerativity in a range of settings. Aotearoa New Zealand has one of the oldest national permaculture organisations in the world and therefore many experienced practitioners who can advance the discussion and highlight the many opportunities.
Published on the Pure Advantage website 13/04/2018
(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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.