Privilege in Permaculture

by | Feb 1, 2014 | Blog, Justice, Permaculture/Homesteading, Politics | 9 comments

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.

Electronics factory in Shenzhen

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. 

A toy factory in mainland China, click for more…

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.

Pattern: If we look at history, we can see a trend of strategic individuals controlling the populace, by controlling the resources. And of course, to do that, you control the land, or “own” it. All value generating activities take place on some piece of land, and some even extract value from the land itself, in the form of fossil fuels, timber, meat etc. This pattern, also called feudalism, has existed for millenia and still exists today in many forms.

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.

Coffee production in El Salvador

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.

Pattern: Growth is internalized, while risk is externalized. This is a defense tactic that major financial institutions discovered by engaging in risky trades. If the trade saw gains, the institution would reap the reward. However if there were losses, they were taken up by the Federal Reserve, ie the tax-payer. Without facing any real risk of failure, these institutions went crazy with these trades, until the recession in 2008 (to present).

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

 Image Sources: 

Privileged App

Coffee Production El Salvador

Peak Oil

Factory Workers in Shenzen

Toy Makers in China

Thanks BARC for composting food waste on our site, providing us with copious free organic matter and feed for pigs and chickens! Let's keep closing the loops!