[permaculture] (long) Open letter to the Australian permaculture movement

John Schinnerer eco_living at yahoo.com
Thu Jul 4 05:27:38 EDT 2002

Thanks Russ,

Here's a few more...I think we're more in agreement than not, I just
felt like expanding on some of my thoughts... ;-)

> I'm not sure if you can design 'culture' anymore than you can design
> 'community'. 

We (or someone else for us, so we'd better get with it!) are never
*not* designing culture (and community) - sometimes explicitly,
sometimes implicitly.  Check out designing of intentional communities
via Communities Journal/FIC (ic.org), GAIA (gaia.org), etc. for
examples of all sorts, including quite a few PC-incorporating or
PC-based communities.  

Meanwhile, in the 'mainstream', people continually sit down and
*design* for consumerism, 'free trade', offshore/sweatshop labor,
illegal migrant labor, endless-growth economies, monoculture
agribusiness, patenting of life, concentration of wealth, concentration
of power, land as commodity, etc. etc.  It doesn't matter if they
publicly (or privately) intend, admit or realize it or if it's implicit
or what - it is done in any case.  So unless I want to support
designing the above, I'd better consider how to design for
alternatives.  Blake says it well - "I must create my own System, or be
enslaved by another Man's."

> I think culture would be the set of social beliefs and
> practices that emerge out of some environment and the influences
> shaping that environment. The role of permaculture, if this is true, 
> would be to design that environment, however the culture would be 
> emergent from that environment and would be unlikely to directly be 
> the outcome of permaculture design.

Indeed - and who shapes the 'environment' and creates the 'influences'?
 We do, in relation with climate, topography and available food,
fodder, fuel and building materials.  We live culture in our daily
life; culture simultaneously arises from and is informed by our
everyday actions and interactions.  We are integrated with our
environment; we cannot design from completely "outside" of our culture
because we live it even as we design (we don't know what we don't know;
"the new can arise only from the random." -Bateson).  This is why there
are always 'biases' in any studies - they are built into (implicit) in
the culture producing the studies.  When all I have is a hammer,
everything starts to look like a nail...

Particular human beings with particular life experiences and
expectations created not only the interpretations but the very methods
of collecting the numbers and processing and assigning meaning to them
('statistics').  There is always 'bias'.  Bias is neither good nor bad
by default; what is essential is to recognize bias exists and attempt
to discern what its consequences may be in a given situation.

Cultures can be seen as ongoing dynamic systems which often appear to
seek a certain degree of homeostasis (stability), albeit dynamic
stability, despite either external or internal shifts.  Sometimes
'external' influences result in big shifts for some cultures (Norman
conquest, Roman Empire, European colonialism, United States/corporate
imperialism, etc.).  Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes something
somewhere in between massive and miniscule changes happen.  Sometimes
it's 'internal' influences that are perturbing the system, and
sometimes both 'internal' and 'external'. 

> Surely the 'dominant cultural shifts of the moment' are important to
> permaculture designers as they form the contexts, the environments,
> in which they must work? 

They are important, as they offer contexts in which we may choose to
work and that may inform our work to whatever extent we choose.  As
well, we may choose to create partial and/or complete alternatives. 
Lots of big shifts have come from (sometimes relatively few) people
creating alternatives (Martin Luther, the 'Founding Fathers', Rosa
Parks, Christopher Columbus, Copernicus, Einstein, etc. etc.).

> They are not some temporary, market driven phenomonon
> but are real changes reshaping how people live in this country.

I would say they are both.  They are 'real', to be sure, but they are
also 'market-driven', and everything is temporary, especially human
endeavors.  And ultimately people are choosing, actively or passively,
to live whatever way they do.  Lots of people may whine about a Costco
(US-based 'warehouse' mega-store) going in in their town, and even
protest a little (or even a lot); but most of them will go shop there
before everywhere else as soon as it opens.

> If permaculture
> designers and teachers ignore them, then they find themselves in the
> same boat as politicians in this country are often accused of being 
> out of touch with social reality - their concept of society does not 
> match the reality, so their presecriptions fail because the reality 
> is different.

I am not advocating ignoring them; neither am I advocating blindly
accepting them.  I am advocating prolonged and thoughtful observation -
assessment, assessment, assessment.  
Sounds a bit different than here with the politicians, though - here,
politicians who actually get elected are mostly driving or supporting
(actively or passively) the 'mainstream' reality.  The ones that are
perceived as 'out of touch' with mainstream propaganda (like Nader) get
some attention, but very few votes.

> There is plenty of evidence that the trends identified in the census
> and in the study of Bernard Salt are real.

Check out "Everything Real is Not True" by Harold Nelson at:

> Well, how do you 'beat them' with the small number of people involved
> in permaculture and its consequent lack of influence and visibility 
> in society?

I think it was Margaret Mead who spoke the oft-quoted lines about never
doubting that a small minority could change the world, and in fact is
the only influence that ever has?  Agrees with what I know of systems
theory, chaos theory, whole systems design, stuff that has happened in
recorded history.  Who says PC lacks influence?  A culture that says
size and 'visibility' and 'power over' are what matter, and is
destroying itself (like others before it) by living those beliefs.  And
visibility - if McDonough is doing PC or something like it, it's
certainly getting some visibility.   And what if it's not about
"beating them?" but about designing alternatives?  Blake's next line is
"I will not Reason and Compare - my Business is to Create!"

> I'm not sure if this is what you are suggesting John, but there has
> been a tendency in Australia for permaculturists to see themselves as
> somehow standing outside society. 

I gathered that from your letter.  There's certainly some similarities
in the USA, in my experience, and also some counter-examples (like
McDonough, like some folks here in Seattle doing urban-focused design
courses and implementations, etc.)

> I wasn't suggesting that we 'join them' but that we acknowledge the
> trends and work with them. That's simply saying that we should work 
> with what we have wherever we are - I recall Bill Mollison promoted 
> that idea. 

I agree with that.

> Looking into the 'mainstream' from the fringe merely sets up a
> perception
> that we are somehow different to others and further marginalises
> permaculture. Maybe we really are part of the society after all.

I've yet to hear of anyone who's sucessfully severed all ties and is
living in "PC paradise;" I reckon we're all part of multiple cultures,
communities, societies.  There is no 'away' to throw things to, or to
run to...interdependence happens...

> I recall Dr Robert Gillman (Context Institute) telling us, when he
> was in this country, that if around ten percent of the population 
> adopted some idea or practice then it was probably unstoppable and 
> would over time merge into the maistream. 

I don't know if he's updated those figures, but I reckon it's far less
than 10%.  That's really quite a sizeable chunk.  National 'trends' are
'established' by 'respected' polling companies that survey a fraction
of one percent of the population.  No need for 10% - just create the
illusion of 10%. 

I think what matters more is who's pushing the idea or practice and how
- what's the process, how long can it be maintained until it starts to
self-generate without so much input?  How does it get to Gilman's 10%,
or whatever the number may be?  Cell phones were very scarce and
expensive for quite a long while...now they're almost ubiquitous in
certain subcultures.  If they hadn't had a lot of money and propaganda
driving them for long enough, would they still be around?  Beta format,
though technically superior (and used by commercial broadcast
industry), lost out to VHS in the USA home video marketing 'wars'. 
Commodore Corp. made some great PC's in their day, but couldn't market
their way out of a wet paper bag.  Apple, on the other hand, seems able
to shoot itself in the foot over and over and still not bleed to death.
 Public transit in the USA used to be much more well-developed, and
cars were a rarity.  How did that get reversed?

John S.

John Schinnerer, MA
- Eco-Living -
Cultural & Ecological Designing
Food - Water - Shelter - Community - Technology
john at eco-living.net

Do You Yahoo!?
Sign up for SBC Yahoo! Dial - First Month Free

More information about the permaculture mailing list