Category Archives: Social ecology

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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National Council for Permaculture in New Zealand report

Last weekend the national council for Permaculture in New Zealand (PINZ) got together in Hamilton. We meet up a few weekends a year to do the stuff that we can’t really do on skype and it is a great opportunity to put in some serious hours together. This is my second year as chair of the council and I am really proud of what a great team we have. Many of us have been working together for a few years, and this year we also got two new members who bring exciting new skills and energy to the group.

We have made a lot of progress and a big part of that has been a result of our focus on strategic planning. The strategic plan itself is coming along well, but it is the process itself that is so important. Working through the key priorities of the organisation, with members input, means that we are able to effectively apply our energy and resources for the greatest impact. This means better supporting some of our current initiatives, such as the annual hui and the website, and developing some new ones, such as developing a media plan.

The strategic plan helps to be clear what the essential functions of the hui and the website are and so to make the best use of them. Since the website is one of the most important public faces of permaculture, making sure that the look and feel is right is important. PINZ is currently considering a logo change and that will be the basis to redesign the website, newsletter and all of our literature. This is all part of preparing to engage much more proactively with media, political decision-makers, allied movements, and the general public.

In line with that, council has made a decision to take up the invitation of the Australians to host the Australasian Permaculture Convergence (APC) in 2019. The last APC in Aotearoa was in 2012 and it was a hit. We will be looking at how we can use the opportunity to showcase permaculture to the nation. We are also looking at the possibility to extending it to make it a Pasifik Permaculture Convergence. There are a number of links that individual NZ and Australian permaculturalists have made over the years with Pasifikan permaculturalists so it seems like a good opportunity to strengthen those links.

To this end, we are initiating a number of scholarships. Last year we helped raise around $1000 through crowdfunding to support a permaculturalist from South America to attend the International Permaculture Convergence (IPC) in Cuba. We would have preferred to support someone from the Pasifik but none applied to the UK permaculturalists who organised it. For next year we want to specifically invite applications to PINZ from across the Pasifik (including Aotearoa). The intention is to create a crowdfunded scholarship to attend the IPC in the UK. If it is successful we would also like to create a crowdfunded scholarship for a Pasifikan permaculturalist to attend the annual hui in Aotearoa.

This is all part of a strategic approach to building links into different communities. Alongside this we are also keep to build on and support initiatives aimed at taking permaculture more into the business world. One of the intentions of the 2019 convergence is to create media opportunities to talk about permaculture with the public and to provide an event that can demonstrate the relevance of permaculture for the challenges we face in the world today.

There is a lot of work involved in developing these ideas and bringing them into reality, but it is an exciting prospect. The permaculture community has so much to offer Aotearoa and the world and the PINZ council is feeling inspired about being part of the next step in getting permaculture out there and into people’s understanding.
(adapted from permaculture.org.nz)

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Reflections on Resilience

Some reflections following a permaculture workshop on Empowerment and Resilience that I run alongside Finn Mackesy from Auckland Permaculture Workshop (APW).

Resilience has become the new buzzword. Where a few years ago everyone was talking about sustainability, now they are all talking about resilience. The problem is that many of them don’t seem to know the difference.

I was recently at the Environmental Defence Society annual conference where the theme was resilience. It was a great conference with many excellent speakers, but at least one corporate functionary was talking about how his company is increasing its resilience by implementing more efficient production methods. Actually, resilience is more likely to be a function of increased redundancy in the system than increased efficiency. The best systems find the right balance between efficiency and strategic redundancy.

Even more concerning is that people use the word ‘resilience’ when they actually mean ‘robustness’. There is a great TED talk by a guy in the US who goes around looking at why houses fail in storms. It’s very interesting, and shows startling evidence that most roof, and therefore house, failures come from very small details – two instead of three nails in the hurricane strapping, or using the standard one and a half inch instead of two inch nails to hold the trusses on. He talks about building resilience by making the house stronger, but what he is actually doing is building a more robust house.

This may seem like pedantry of the highest order, but if people are trying to develop strategies to build resilience, in own lives or in their communities and businesses, then they need to understand what that means. Very often, strategies to build more robustness will run counter to strategies to build resilience. It is important to find the right balance so that systems are robust but also have the capacity for resilience. This can only be achieved if you are clear about what you are trying to achieve.

Robustness comes from the Latin word for ‘oak tree’, and that is a very good illustration of its meaning. A robust system is strong, able to withstand stress and pressure, able to shake off the storms that might break a lesser tree.

Resilience comes form the Latin word for ‘spring back’. Grass is the classic example – the wind can never break grass because it just gives way and then returns when the pressure is gone. Resilience is the ability of a system to bend, or regenerate itself when things break.

Ecosystems often go through phases of great robustness, such as a climax forest characterised by high levels of specialisation, complex interconnections, lots of embodied energy, followed by release, such as from a forest fire. The breaking up of that embodied energy and recycling it back into the system allows a range of species to make us of it, to build and reorganise, and sets the scene for a new phase of growth, with increasing levels of complexity and specialisation until the climax stage is reached again. This is called the cycle of adaptive change and is an ever changing and dynamic balance.

cycle of adaptive change

Strategies of sustainability often seem to be locked into trying to maintain the climax stage. Hence, a focus on increased efficiency and more specialisation. The sole focus is building more robustness into the system. There is nothing wrong with robustness, but if it is the sole focus it leaves no room for resilience when the system sooner or later inevitably fails. The global economy that is built on fossil carbon is like that. Design systems like permaculture are more about how to find the right balance between robustness and a capacity for resilience.

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Traditional Hawai’ian Terraquaculture

For many visitors to Hawai’i the native people are almost invisible behind the caricature of plastic leis and aloha shirts. Yet Hawai’ian culture and identity is alive and well, observable most strongly in the resurgence of Pasifik voyaging and the powerful hula traditions. The traces of their sophisticated and complex ancient culture are apparent throughout the landscape, in the heiau (temples) that dominate many headlands and hilltops, in the traditional placenames that evoke their polynesian past and less obviously in the taro terraces now hidden by neglect.

It is fairly well known among the general population of Hawai’i that the traditional land division was based around the ahupua’a. Most guidebooks describe this as a long strip of land that stretches from the mountaintop to the sea, and comment that it gave the people of that ahupua’a access to all the resources they needed for self sufficiency. What these descriptions miss, and what becomes apparent when you look at a map of them, is that ahupua’a are based on water catchments. The ahupua’a was actually a system of integrated water catchment management.

I was told that traditionally a kind of committee of resource experts would decide collectively how best to manage the resources within the ahupua’a. Preservation of waterways was a paramount consideration and it was a principle that a person at the bottom of the catchment had a right to the same quantity and quality of water as one at the top. The lifeforces in the waterways were personified as mo’o, reptilian / humanoid guardians of water, and honoured.

The same no longer applies today. At Ka’ala Farm they showed me where traditionally 5 watercourses had snaked across the valley. Today only two run, intermittently. The streams had been diverted and exploited for the sugar cane plantations, and then for the town supply. As a result the water lens was badly depleted.

Visiting Ka’ala Farm (www.kaala.org)was a revelation for me. A community learning centre and a place of healing and celebration, the farm had revived a section of the taro terraces put there hundreds of years before by their ancestors. The valley held hundreds of acres of such terraces they told me, but they only had the labour power to maintain a small section of them. Nevertheless they were abundant with wet grown taro, fresh-water fish farms, dry taro, banana, kumara (in association with various tree crops), kukui (candlenut), koa wood and a host of other crops.

Traditionally the local Hawai’ians would also have farmed salt-water fish (the remains of traditional fish farms and stone-work fish traps are still found all over Hawai’i). They also fished from wa’a (waka), guided by the observations of sea, fish movements, weather and astronomy that their kahuna (tohunga) made from the heiau strategically placed on various headlands.

I was told that traditionally the Hawai’ians had planted tree crops on the ridges to catch mist and cloud and bring water down into the valley. Mountain apples and other fruits were strategically planted into specific microclimates on the slopes where they would thrive. The wetlands at the bottom of the valley (now drained) were traditionally protected as sources of abundance, and expanded via stone terracing up the slopes.

What was particularly interesting for me was that I had just attended a talk by Kama Burwell at the PiNZ hui at Tapu Te Ranga Marae where she had described very similar systems of terraquaculture practised by the Chinese, except growing rice in their terraces instead of taro. Both of these traditions show a very sophisticated understanding of holistic resource management, far beyond most modern farming practises. It definitely made me want to make a far more careful examination of traditional Maori resource management than I have so far.

The fact is that food security is a very significant issue in Hawai’i. Around 85% – 90% of their food is imported and food is expensive. It was a major highlight of my visit to Hawai’i to see these ancient systems of resource management, broken by the illegal annexation of Hawai’i by the USA, being brought back to life. Even better than the surfing and snorkelling was seeing the taro terraces and fish ponds in use and feeding the community.

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