Thursday, 19 February 2015

Is it time for a Permaculture World?

by Chris Marsh

Ever since hearing about permaculture 25 years ago I’ve wondered how it was going to take off in a big way and save the world. It turns out that the answer lies in permaculture ethics: ‘care of the earth’, ‘care of people’ and ‘setting limits to population and consumption’ (or ‘fair shares’) (Mollison 1-9). Effectively, permaculture is the opposite to conventional economics, because we have ethics, they have ‘externalities’.

Professors of Economics, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, mention ‘externalities’ as the term economists use for effects like pollution, overuse of resources and failure to meet social needs, with the word indicating that market decisions tend not to take these effects into account unless forced to by law and public opinion (82, 92). Democratic governments, elected by the public, make laws and enforce regulations, but public opinion is fickle and can be manipulated, and governments tend to bow to economic interests rather than public ones. Economic growth can raise household incomes and help remove poverty, but Drèze and Sen point out that India, ‘the world’s largest democracy’, fails to deliver on what we would call earth care and people care, because the benefits of growth are not spread fairly (248). Interestingly, the word ‘externalities’ does not appear in the index of Ha-Joon Chang’s useful little book, Economics: The User’s Guide. The effects are mentioned, in a chapter entitled ‘Running Out of the Planet?: Taking Environmental Sustainability Seriously’, but the author makes a case for more economic growth being the answer, especially for developing countries (268-73). What becomes apparent is that economic growth can benefit or harm people and planet – because ‘externalities’ don’t really count – so we are faced with chronic uncertainty. However, another book on economics, Wolfgang Streek’s Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, suggests that an end to uncertainty is fast approaching.

The End of Democratic Capitalism
For decades there’s been talk of globalisation bringing about the ‘End of the Nation’, the subject of a major article a few months ago in New Scientist. Recent studies by economists and political scientists show how ideologues of the neoliberal capitalist system advocate the rolling back of the state, and that state bureaucracies are weakening and national governments are losing power.

In Buying Time, Streek examines the crisis history of late capitalism since the 1970s and concludes that ‘democracy [has split] from capitalism through the splitting of the economy from democracy’ (5). What has happened is that governments have switched constituencies, away from voters towards creditors: ‘from tax state to debt state’ as Streek puts it (72-5). We can no longer rely on ‘law and public opinion’ to impose ethical standards on the economy. Streek sets out a political consequence of the long financial and fiscal crisis as the emergence of the authoritarian ‘consolidation state’ in Europe (97). Streek’s suggestion for ‘buying time’ is that national governments should withdraw from the European Monetary Union in order to be able to boost their economies by devaluing their currencies; an interesting scenario, given Greece has recently elected a leftist anti-austerity party into government, who are at present insisting they want to keep the euro.

These changes have effects locally, nationally and globally. At the start of their term of office, the leaders of the UK Coalition government presented a vision of ‘The Big Society’ and a ‘Localism agenda’, presented as ‘the key to economic, social and political success in the future’. Hidden in the rhetoric are the key phrases ‘small government’, ‘a shrinking of the state’ and ‘an ethic of volunteerism’ ( ). Responsibilities are devolved (giving local decision makers what Isaiah Berlin termed ‘negative freedom’), but with ‘austerity’ and cuts funding does not follow. This means that local people are faced with an enormous challenge: finding solutions to a whole raft of problems born out of the national and global economic crisis.

Alternative Economics
There are a few enlightened economists with constructive solutions to the long crisis. In his books Capitalism Hits the Fan, and Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (also his 2011 lecture:, Richard Wolff sets out his answer to the extreme and deepening inequalities of global capitalism as ‘Workers Self-Directed Enterprises’ or producer co-ops. A weakness of Wolff’s proposal is that it seems to depend on obtaining Federal funding from taxation.

In their scholarly study A Post-Capitalist Politics, J.K. Gibson-Graham recommend ‘place-based activism’ (5) and they set out the principles of ‘intentional community economies’ with a number of real examples (165-96). The vision of ‘post-capitalism’ echoes the authors’ earlier feminist critique of the ‘End of Capitalism’. It is strong on vision and imagination, but with a practical orientation and an emphasis on diversity. (Sadly one of the authors died in 2010.)

Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, in his World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, sets out an alternative ‘Plan B’, an ‘economy for the twenty-first century’ (99-180), and in his final chapter says that such a plan is ‘our only hope’ (183). He urges readers to get informed, become politically active and get together to put pressure on their political representatives. So, like Wolff, Brown relies on a ‘democratic revolution’. Interestingly, Brown describes one form of popular response which does not require political action at national or international levels, the ‘Local Food Movement’ (175-8).

Although he is not a trained economist, I will include Rob Hopkins and the Transition Movement under the heading ‘alternative economics’, because Hopkins also has a Plan B, aimed at addressing austerity by encouraging local entrepreneurship. All these alternatives depend on local involvement, understanding and good will, acting as the equivalent of the ‘law and public opinion’ which Drèze and Sen mention as the guardians of ‘externalities’.

The Problem is the Solution
Anyone concerned about the state of the world today can probably nominate the worst effects or threats in their estimation. Many will say the Climate Crisis, others the major Species Extinction event which is underway. I would nominate land degradation: soil erosion, salinisation, devastated forests, spreading deserts. I have thought that Bill Mollison, co-founder of the Permaculture Movement, would also put the land first, given that the first permaculture ethical principle is ‘earth care’.

If everyone were gainfully employed in the neoliberal economy with its laissez-faire market democracy – which disregards ‘externalities’ – there would be no hope for climate, species or land. But there’s also a social crisis which could be an opportunity to address the others. Streek writes about ‘an abandoned underclass’, and ‘diffuse expectations of socia1 justice still present in sections of the population’ which may ‘provide an impetus for anarchistic protest movements’. He refers chillingly to methods developed in the US to manage this underclass which Europe could adopt. Observing this situation with permaculture in mind, we would see those people as a potential resource, available to take part in building ‘intentional community economies’, to use Gibson-Graham’s phrase, so that ‘the problem is the solution’. Looked at globally or nationally, this would appear to be an enormous challenge, but taken one town or village or city neighbourhood at a time, it is not impossible. The question now is whether permaculture is ready to take it on. 

Three of the texts referenced in this blog

The Trojan Horse
Rob Hopkins has said in an interview that Transition was ‘designed as a Trojan horse’ to smuggle in Permaculture, as a way of scaling up ‘a bottom-up, grassroots and solution-led approach’ which has tended to be ‘niche and fringe’ (Gordon-Farleigh, The ‘niche and fringe’ tendency has always bothered me, because I came to permaculture after spending several years researching and teaching on land degradation worldwide, and the concept of ‘permanent agriculture’, already thought out and put into practice by the founders, promised to be the solution.

When I got involved in permaculture in Britain I found that most of the early adopters had little or no access to land. They were generally not home owners with gardens. A few had tiny smallholdings in the Celtic fringes. My hopes were dashed of bringing permaculture onto the gardens of England – a potential plot of about a million acres. ‘Permaculture’s not just gardening!’ was the mantra, and people were applying the design approach to anything and everything. I’m afraid I was disappointed and critical of all that – but I was wrong. Permaculture has to prove itself, by taking two directions. Of course it has to show that the design approach gets results when applied to agriculture, because food is the No. 1 human need. But it is also necessary to prove that, given any package of needs and wants, permaculture design can be employed to find out how best to achieve it, using the available resources of time, skills and interests, whether or not land or food is involved. My judgement is that this has been done. Permaculture has proved itself on both counts. There have been 25 years (or more) of the ‘niche and fringe’ and ‘not just gardening’ applications, people discovering the brilliance and joy of permaculture, where a bunch of friends in a particular place get together and decide how to live their lives. They think about what they’ve got between them: some skills and favourite things to do, access to a bit of land, clear ideas about what cannot be done without, and so on. Then they draw up a design and a plan for how to achieve all their needs and desires, using, as far as possible, only their local resources.

More recently, the question of how permaculture ecological design can successfully feed people in the UK has been answered. Andy Goldring, Permaculture Association CEO, addressed the 2015 Oxford Real Farming Conference on ‘Initiating Permaculture & Integrating Research’ and ‘addressing the data gap’: amassing the evidence from permaculture plots and LAND centres. It has been known for some time that permaculture works to feed people and rebuild communities in deprived areas and on marginal land. Recently there has been a call for funding for the republication of a Tropical Permaculture Guidebook, providing ‘knowledge, techniques and skills that will reduce the severity of global climate change and provide adaptation and resilience knowledge and skills to those impacted the most by climate change and who are the least able to afford expensive solutions’.

Life in its Completeness
I have mentioned my disappointment 25 years ago at permaculture being ‘not just gardening’. I stayed in touch, but I also turned aside to find out about the rural reconstruction work carried out by Rabindranath Tagore from the 1890s to 1930s. I heard about Tagore at the same time as I first heard of permaculture, and I saw parallels between them. Tagore believed that people should be given the freedom to work cooperatively towards self-reliance at the local community level. His focus was on rebuilding village society in India, disrupted by British rule, with the aim of bringing what he called ‘life in its completeness’. Tagore regarded the ‘modern age’ as a phase during which humanity took a wrong turning, led by the West, but dragging Asia after it. In his last public address ‘Crisis in Civilization’, Tagore indicated that he foresaw a ‘new chapter in history after the cataclysm is over’, the ‘cataclysm’ being the system we live under, which puts profit before planet and people.

In his essay ‘City and Village’, Tagore’s aims appear very modest. He explained that rather than think of the whole country, it is best to start in a small way: ‘If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established’. Historian Uma Das Gupta has described Tagore as ‘exhausted and weak’ and clearly in despair in the 1930s, because those working for him had reorganized the project ‘as a business’, with profit-making dairy units and cottage industries, to the detriment of Tagore’s aim of building village self-reliance (376).

Tagore, of course, knew nothing of climate change and peak oil, the drivers of the Transition movement. He might have felt uneasy about Hopkins’ Plan B, with its emphasis on local entrepreneurialism. I wonder about Hopkins’ notion of ‘scaling up’ permaculture from being ‘niche and fringe’, which might result in spreading the ideas and practices too thin. Tagore’s vision was to bring ‘life in its completeness’ in one locality at a time. It is no longer acceptable to ignore ‘externalities’ such as land degradation, pollution and waste, species extinctions and social deprivation. Taking responsibility locally is the only way to ensure ‘ethics’ come first. The shrinking debt state divorced from democracy, official approval of a Localism agenda, and permaculture design having proved its efficacy, means that it is time for permaculture to take off in a big way and save the world.


Berlin, Isaiah, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969)
Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011)
Chang, Ha-Joon, Economics: The User’s Guide (London: Pelican, 2014)
Das Gupta, Uma, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921-41’, Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78.
Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions (London: Penguin, 2014)
Gibson-Graham, J.K., A Post-Capitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006)
Hopkins, Rob, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How local action can change the world (Cambridge: Green, 2013)
MacKenzie, Debora, ‘End of the Nation’, New Scientist, 6 September 2014, pp. 30-7.
Mollison, Bill, Introduction to Permaculture (Tyalgum, NSW: Tagari, 1991)
Permaculture Ambassadors Blog, ‘Oxford Real Farming Conference on “Initiating Permaculture & Integrating Research”’,;
Streek, Wolfgang Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014)
Tagore, Rabindranath, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-22.
—‘Crisis in Civilization’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 353-9.
Wolff, Richard, Capitalism Hits The Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (Northampton, MA, 2013)
Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012)
— 2014 lecture:

1 comment:

  1. I wonder why posts to this blog don't attract comments. I note that this title 'is-it-time-for-permaculture-world' (or 'is it time for a permaculture world?') doesn't bring the blog up in google unless you put 'ambassadors' as well. I put the article on my own blog tagoreanworld and that comes up. I also note that the archive is right at the bottom, below comments, so visitors may not find their way to other posts.