Privilege in Permaculture
Privilege is one of those uncomfortable topics that most of us might feel guilty about but don’t really know what to do about it. I’ve heard some people claim that “Permaculture is a feel good hobby for the affluent.” And like a good permie, my response would be, “It depends…” Based on how some individuals apply permaculture, this is true. But we can easily find many examples of how this type of work has benefited the under-represented in our society; such as Geoff Lawton’s work in Jordan, and Willie Smits work in Borneo. It’s critical that we account for privilege if we really want to create the equitable, and abundant world that we are working to bring forth.
Accounting for privilege depends on which layer you’re looking at. Most of us play both roles; oppressor and oppressed. While I’m more privileged than the Filipino I talk to at the call center to fix my printer, I’m also a minion to my employers and landlords because they have such absolute control over the quality of my life.
We may be quick to criticize the 1%ers with their extravagant yachts and expensive hobbies, but we probably don’t look that different from the perspective of the 45% of the population of Nicaragua that lives on less than $1/day [World Bank], with our “extravagant” concert tickets or expensive coffee. Obviously though, the further down ladder you are, the more “Suck” you have to deal with.
Do you recall the controversy over Foxconn, the factory in Taiwan where IPhone’s are made? The working conditions are terrible, accidents are common, hours are long, and pay is poor. However when the workers tried to unionize and speak out against this, foxconn doc’ed their pay, and penalized those involved in organizing it.
At a rare earth refinery in Malaysia, the townspeople experience increased rates of miscarriage, birth defects and leukemia because of the pollution from the plant. These plants are part of the production stream of many of the consumer electronic goods available today; smart phones, flat screen TVs and more.
And that’s not to mention the under-represented peoples in our own regions, who lack access to the tools to help “lift themselves (by the bootstraps!)” out of this situation.
There’s a convenient veil between US and the other side of the world, where our goods are mined and manufactured. When you live in a pocket of affluence, it can create a very convincing facade that everything is just as it should be, it’s all A-OK. It’s tempting to just close one’s eyes and mind to the darker realities of this world. But the internet knows all these days. We must be vigilant to spread and raise awareness so that we don’t collectively fall into complacency.
How do we honor human equality in our designs? How do we bring awareness of these imbalances into our everyday life and decisions? How do YOU perceive your varying roles of privilege and marginalization?
As permaculturists, we love to talk about the end of cheap oil. Perhaps it’s even a main motivating force for your planning and design work. However the current economy is just as dependent on cheap LABOR as it is on cheap oil. Without both of those, we would not be drinking coffee regularly. 😉 It seems most large scale economies are based upon an exploitation and disrespect of human beings, and the land-base that supplies our natural resources.
Like many permies, I’m trying to rectify the privilege by slowly learning to become less dependent on that system and sharing what I learn with others. But still, I benefit from the luxury of having both the land, the time, and some disposable income to do that, which most don’t have. Should I not make use of these privileges?
It can be argued that inequalities in standards of living can be mostly attributed to unequal access to land. As a case study, let’s look at the development of the coffee industry in El Salvador. The “coffee republic” was established between roughly 1871 and 1927. Those in power promoted coffee as a cash crop, and so developed infrastructure (trains, roads) to facilitate the coffee trade. They seized land from individual smallholders as well as communal landholdings, and passed anti-vagrancy laws to force the displaced people into farm labor. They actively suppressed rural discontent with this plan. The land became concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy of a few hundred families, who had immense pull within the government of El Salvador. There was even a national guard formed specifically to preside over the coffee farms.
In the sacred text of permaculture, (that’s sarcasm in case you missed it) The Permaculture Designers Manual, Mollison describes that a nation must have an agreed upon common basis for their action (a common ethic). He even goes so far as to offer some suggestions for us; 1. To care for the Earth; Repair and Conserve. 2. To seek peace, and to guard human rights everywhere, and 3. to invest all capital, intelligence, goodwill, and labor to these ends. These communities should be organized according to bio-regions consisting of 7,000 to 40,000 individuals, with the purpose of “…assessing the natural, technical, service, and financial resources of the region.” He encourages land to be held in trust, and owned cooperatively by all those who call it home. It’s just the improvements to the land; the houses, the wells, the roads etc that can be owned by private citizens.
“We need to set about, in an orderly, sensible, and cooperative way, a system of replacing power-centered politics and political hierarchies with a far more flexible, practical, and information-centered system responsive to research and feedback, and with long-terms goals of stability…the place to start change is first with the individual (oneself), and second in one’s region or neighborhood.” – Mollison
Unfortunately we aren’t given any specifics of how to deal with these power-centered systems, in a non-confrontational, sensible way. But he does encourage support of political parties and candidates that take a stand on good ecology, or against polluting industry; a Green party. However, this assumes that the democracy of the region is at least somewhat functional and responsive to the interests of the electorate.
There are a number of eco-communities in the US where the land is held in a collective trust, similar to what Mollison describes. Yet, even though they have equalized the balance of power and privilege that comes with land ownership to some degree within their borders, outside, in the macrocosm of the greater world, they’re still just another privileged entity. All those people that bought into this land trust had to have some amount of wealth to even have the ability to do that. So, yes it’s a solution, but you’re just pushing the problem up to the next level of organization. These land-trust communes, they don’t do much to address the truly marginalized people. They create an enclave of balance and harmony within a privileged upper class. (granted exceptions such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico) And, as in the case of El Salvador, they are still vulnerable to being taken by force by larger organized bodies of people.
“If you have a dysfunctional institution, don’t try to change it. Rather, determine what that institution was supposed to deliver and design a better system to actually deliver that purpose or service. If you have done the thing correctly, then people will come to you for that. The old institution will eventually wither and die.” — Bill Mollison
I hate how often the holocaust is used as a rhetorical device, but I’m going to use it because it’s a strong tool for homogenizing cultural value. (Nothing like a common enemy to bring people together) Imagine you’re a normal German citizen living in Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s one thing to be unaware of the atrocities taking place. But once you found out what the Nazis were actually doing with the Jews, how would you respond?
Now imagine you formed a group of German citizens who were outraged with what was taking place, and decided the best course of action would be to buy some land, and create your own little community where Jews are treated equally, then reassure one another that the “old system” of Nazism will simply become obsolete and everyone will come around to your way of doing things. I think you get the point.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King
How could permaculture help the Campesinos (peasants) of El Salvador? They can rant about the permaculture principles, they can appeal the land owners to plant polycultures and even get them installed. But still, all the savings the farms would accrue through these practices would go to those who own the land, and the workers would probably not see a rise in their pay simply for the fact that they don’t have to. Increases in production, whether from technological advances, or ecological advances, tend to only benefit the owner class in a society.
At the same time, losses are usually passed down to the workers. During the “Coffee Crisis” between 1990-2005, the monetary return for the producers (farm owners) product fell by more than half. This was due to an oversupply as the World Bank and IMF encouraged more countries like Vietnam to get into coffee production through generous loans. At this same time, however, big coffee corporations involved in the processing, and distribution saw remarkable profits, which went to the shareholders.
The Salvadoran workers couldn’t just go work somewhere else where they’re paid better, and they couldn’t organize and demand higher wages because labor organizers were systematically silenced.
“Assasination is the most extreme and effective form of censorship.” ~George Bernard Shaw
In 1932, the Campesinos did the only thing that they could do; rise up, and defend their lives and their rights, violently if necessary. However the uprising largely failed. It wasn’t enough to just quell the uprising. To make a statement the Oligarchy carried out a collective punishment by killing 8-30,000 campesinos indescriminately. This eventually created a conservative culture that was afraid to challenge the existing regime, and deplored indigenous culture.
Coffee seems like such a small thing in our daily life, just a little convenience we enjoy. But some country’s whole history revolves around it, civil wars, famines, massacres, assassinations, coups etc!
How do we now respond to this. Is it better to not use our privilege and just drop out? Or is it better to leverege our privilege to reorganize society to be free of that imbalance? Is it better to use privilege to offer support and aid in the personal liberation of those less able? We often hear the rationalization for using large machinery and fossil fuels to establish permaculture systems. Perhaps we can apply the same logic to privilege.
I guess I’m leaving with more questions than answers, but maybe that’s what’s appropriate now. Maybe we need to leave more space for the often unheard voices here. To really get to the bottom of this, all perspectives need to be present. We need to be democratic about it.
This web of oppression has existed for millenia; we’re not going to untangle it in one sitting. This is the work of generations. But, so long as we are a community united by a shared ethic, the rest is just working out the logistics. 🙂
*Gratitude for the Inspiration: Teri V., Henry George, Tim Wise, Mateo, Kirk W., Life
I hardly think Geoff Lawton is a good example, that guy is loaded and has been making a mint out of permaculture for quite a few years now. He spends more time with his friends in the Jordanian royal family than working with the poor!
When a Tasmanian pontificates on ‘Land access strategies’, he must taste the blood in the land he walks on. Bill Mollinson, it would seem, is a latter day irony. The unpublished indigenous cultures who espoused other models of sustainable living never stood a chance did they?
Levi – I appreciate your article. I get what the other two commenters are saying – I used to go to peak oil conferences, largely organized by a local millionaire who was a born-again peak oil person. I knew he was not very literate about economic realities for people like me or others, but figured that was my job, to deal with that. The fact that many of the permaculture teachers are well-to-do does not denigrate what they’re teaching – they’re a symptom of the problem, not a cause. And I think they’ll change, as new forms come to pass. Americans have been defining personal self-worth in monetary terms for decades now, so it will take a while to change (I know this from personal experience – I was formerly more affluent, so most of my social circle are more affluent than me – world-traveled, new cars, electronic toys, etc. So far few of them have done a thing to help me find work in the downturn.) It does irk me a bit though that permaculture teachers SOMETIMES charge so much. But there are starting to be more free videos and online materials. Thanks for your essay! I plan to bookmark it for future reference in discussions – and good luck w/the farm! I’m in central Indiana and have a backyard garden not officially permie, but many elements (organic, rain barrels, food and beauty and nature refuge) in a VERY conventional lawn yard area.
Interesting article. This is a tricky discussion as you mention. If I am affluent am I even allowed to comment without hypocrisy? That being said – I will risk comment. Nico, I know Geoff a little bit personally and have been involved with the Jordan project via a non profit I used to work with. I do not know how much you have worked in the Middle East, but like it or not (and I don’t), you can do nothing there without the ok of the powers that be. The restoration project is really a great one and once the R&D farm has scientific results it will be a revolution in restoration. Time will tell. Geoff is not “loaded”, he is very in debt – he spends everything on his farm and trying to get the message out and on aid projects. I am not saying he is perfect and without problems – but who is? It is easy to judge at a distance – could we do better ourselves? Bill Mollison is the same -Mamiko, he is senile now, but in his day he made an amazingly revolutionary move of paradigm. I am not sure you realize how “out of the box” he was or is. It depends how old you are. Like him or not – there would not be Permaculture without him and his old school academics.
Levi, your Nazi analogy is complicated. I know people that are anarchists and take on the system – they do not get very far. The 1% is not the problem, not even the actual power elite ( the .0001%) [see http://www.projectcensored.org/the-global-1-exposing-the-transnational-ruling-class/ ]. IMHO it is about the economy itself. Even the greediest plunderers of the commons in history are only blindly motivated by the values of the economy. It is my opinion that if there is any hope left to save our species, and I have my doubts, it would be to Naturalize the Economy [https://www.academia.edu/9818872/Embracing_Inevitable_Transformational_Change ], The person that I have spoken with who seems to get it the most is Charles Eisenstein. If you have not read Sacred Economic – you should check it out. We need to put the externalities of the living planet, and ecosystem services into the economy (along with a lot more social justice values) and then the Power Elite, transnationals, industrial military complex, and corporations/Banks will all work for Life, symbiosis, and abundance. It is possible, but it needs to be supported on a grassroots level. In my opinion it is homesteads like yours and my future one that are key for this. I dont know anything for sure – but it is a thoughtful opinion. I speak with the big players in ecology directly and though they do not agree on everything – everyone seems to agree on this. (it doesnt make it right – but it is the front lines of growth).
Thanks for the input Bryan! Ill definitely look into those references. But I like what you’re laying down so far!
Thanks for the article. I actually found it today looking for that Mollison quote about replacing destructive systems. That this is a priveleged approach is something that I used to put quite a bit of thought into, and a perpsective that was challenging to me. I was challenged by perspectives that urged relatively privleged people like myself to put our bodies on the line in political revolution to make the system more just. Over time, I grew to disagree with that perspective. Firstly, long-term analysis by various University researchers across fields have found there’s no measureable impact of the political involvement of people in my class in the US. This has been demonstrated in many ways. So, putting my effort into such things is actually wasting energy that could be put into more productive approaches like Permaculture. Imagine if all the folks marching on the street to improve the conditions for less priveleged communities instead put that same energy and effort into better meeting the needs of those communities. Probably, we would not be anything to march for anymore! More to the point, folks working to improve the sustainability and justice of inherently injust and unstainable institutions are LITERALLY working to sustain injustice and waste longer into the future. The net result is of making an insitution JUST BARELY just enough that the people will accept it, is that we normalize injustice. Meanwhile, we’ve wasted so much energy to do so. To me, that is the definition of privelege: wasting our excess energy and resources – energy and resources that could be better utilized by less priveleged people – to sustain injustice by marginally improving the appearance of the system. Through Permaculture I’ve come to understand that many issues of oppression and injustice have a deeper, systemic, ecological basis. For example, in 10,000 years we’ve never produced one example of a just and sustainable agrarian civilization. In fact, war, oppression, and fundamental unsustainability are part of the definition of agrarian civilization! These are defining charactaristics of that human ecology. They are not “problems” but “design tradeoffs” of the system we use to meet our needs. With close examination, it is clear that it is impossible to “fix” these “problems” without changing that system. So, to me, while privileged activists are wasting energy on virtue signaling, serious Permaculturists are doing the real work necessary to truly address injustice. It’s not just the best revolutionary vehicle I’ve found, it’s the only game in town.
So how exactly are you helping the working class or marginalized people in your community by owning a nice permaculture garden? Are you involved in a community garden for the less privileged? Building food commons for everyone to share in public land? Sharing knowledge without asking for money in return?
How is it not a manifestation of privilege to have a bunch of usually white, middle aged people owning a house with land where they can practice permaculture? Reality check: Most people in western countries can’t afford this luxury. If this is supposed to be a solution to some of the problems of our time, shouldn’t it be more accessible to less privileged people? So far I haven’t met any working class permies. The younger ones I’ve met usually inherited land or have work for accomodation agreements.
Another thing that gets me about the bigger permaculture farms is how they rely quite heavily on volunteer labour. How is it sustainable practice to have people work for food and accomodation without any rights, work safety etc.?
So to all of you who know you are privileged and really want to see this change in a larger scale: Make sure people without the means to buy properties, PDCs, infrastructure and gadgets can join in. Otherside this will stay an elitist hobby.