A Necessary Conversation

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.”
~ Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist(writer, blogger)

Me playing at our first "own" home in San Miguel (Argentina) later stripped from us by Military government
Me playing at our first “own” home in San Miguel (Argentina) later stripped from us by Military government

Each one of us speaks, perceives and behaves from a framework or paradigm: each one of us carries a framework that was built through the many interactions we have had with the environment at home, school, work and society. This framework is like the fishbowl for a fish: we are so integrated to it that we may not be aware of how it shapes our thoughts, emotions, attitudes, values, language and even the topics we talk about, the judgements we make and the things we engage on a daily basis.

Since I started digging and trying to implement Permaculture, Degrowth and Transition, I have clashed with a few things that just don’t sound right to me:

  • Necessary changes such as true degrowth are marketed in such a way that for many who already led a simple and frugal life (not by choice but by need) the whole thing may sound as “appropriation” and even a really sad joke (read this excellent article here: The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation: http://www.theestablishment.co/2015/11/23/tiny-home-houses-poverty-appropriation/ . As someone raised in Latin America and socialist parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, many “Permaculture” stuff sounds redundant or even naive…in many ways, some of us raised in what many would consider “poverty” actually wanted to get out of it and have access to running water, fridges and driers: if you are forced to stay in a capitalistic model and work full time, you just don’t have time (or space, or tools, or the skills or even the legal framework around you) to build a well, harvest rainwater, build a root cellar, make home-made soap and wait for days for clothing to dry on a clothesline…how can we reconcile these two worlds and the real needs of an ethical and sustainable future without making people feel guilty or glorifying a “simpler life”?

If we want to be fair and truly “care for People” when talking about Degrowth, Transition and Permaculture, we need to start reviewing our own assumptions and language: it is nice to talk about “spiritual growth” or “quality family/community interactions” when your basic needs are met and you are not functioning under the burden of debt, health or commitments. Talking about these things in front of those who are burdened by discrimination, true poverty and societal disadvantages can be perceived as privilege BS


  • The many articles criticizing “work” as an evil and glorifying all the good stuff we could do if we stayed at home caring for our loved ones, volunteering, etc. This sounds great…for those who can afford it! And sounds terribly judgemental and even violent for those who are trapped on a cycle of debt and family commitments. For a huge percentage of the world population, having a job is a privilege, even a necessary evil that allows them to eat, pay for a roof and other basic needs. There are many great ideas out there about how you should decrease your working hours, choose to work from home or not working at all and fully dedicate to homesteading…the reality is that most employers wouldn’t settle for fewer hours or job-sharing and are still rare those who allow you to work from home. Working from home on your own business is great for certain occupations and depending where you live, but not for all…and for homesteading, unless you own a house that can be converted into one (and you are skilled and healthy enough to do all by yourself) homesteading doesn’t deal with the fact that you still have to pay rent or mortgage, utility bills, tools, seeds and many other things you will not be able to produce or exchange for.

If we want an honest conversation about work, we need to start by trying to build the systemic structures that allow for part-time or from home work and eliminate the injustice and dysfunctional disparities in the current system: employers cutting on benefits and increasing workload while not increasing salaries, non-existing training or work orientation, employee abuse, etc. We also need to be able to pay fair for the services and goods offered by those who can afford working on their own and from home, so this can actually become a sustainable trend for more and benefit those who truly need it: people with disabilities or chronic diseases, stay-at-home parents of small children, aging people, etc.


  • Making people feel bad about debt: There are tons of articles telling us how we should cut on extravagances such as signature coffee, eating out, high-tech devices, lavish vacations or the last designer’s shoes or clothes, or consider living in smaller houses and using less expensive cars…the thing is, only a small percentage of the population does that: those who can afford it, or those who have credit cards with huge limits (which in turn are the ones with the biggest salaries!)

Most people with debts don’t do anything of the above, at least not in a regular basis: but these articles are designed to make you feel terrible if you go to a concert once a year, eat out once a season and drink a nice coffee once a month! Or if you live in a city where house prices and rent are so high that you have no other choice but getting a 30+ years mortgage if you ever want to own something (the only other “choice” is to move away, where there are no jobs, your children have no friends or family and your social/cultural life may be reduced to zero)

If instead of subsidizing big-ag or the many fossil fuel companies that are polluting and destroying our ecosystems and future, we subsidized education and culture, I wouldn’t be indebted: all my debt comes from courses and books and a bit from tools and resources I chose to buy so I could try things from gardening to preserving food.

Yes, now I have a huge library and lots of skills, but I’m paying for it with hours and hours of my life and feel guilty for my debt!

I wonder how many out there are indebted because they have no other choice than resort to credit cards and loans in order to bring food to the table, pay for utility bills, send their children to college or buy a well deserved signature coffee, eat out with their co-workers once a season and have new shows as the last were already worn out!


  • Permaculture as a business: Let’s face it: most PDCs are expensive, classes to learn how to make your own cheese, soaps and candles are expensive, canning and pickling require some investment, gardening requires land, tools, seeds and skills that are not free and so on…while those providing these services and goods also need to make a living, the fact continues to be there: that those who would really need access to these skills and opportunities (i.e. people in low income neighbourhoods with no access to fresh and healthy food, refugees in refugee camps or crowded basements and apartments, aboriginal peoples, immigrants, people with disabilities or chronic diseases, seniors and single parents) cannot afford some and sometimes none of those things.

On the other hand, hundreds of business have sprouted to fulfill the “call to Nature” or “call to simple and frugal life” of many middle class youth and some not so young: when you ask around, most talk about the land they recently bought, the house they inherited or the opportunity to leave off the grid. How many of us can truly afford any of that?

The conversation here is about how to utilize existent structures (institutions) to ensure this is made affordable to those who need it most?

And those who can afford it, may need to think on how they can facilitate those who cannot, instead of perpetuating the enslaving and abuse of people: woofing, house and farm sitting are all great until you notice that some need to pay for their stay and food or work long hours for just a bed in a shared shack.


  • The sharing and the “new” or “alternative” economy, local currency and the like: these new paradigms ask us to see capitalism in a new way: instead of charging or paying money for services and goods, we pay with time, skills, or the exchange of goods and services we already have in excess. That sounds nice, but in reality doesn’t work that well: it probably would, if we all lived in a tiny community where all the services and goods were exchanged in this way. Also, changing money for another “currency” is more or less the same: we still need to “earn” it in the first place!

Something many don’t see is that rent, mortgages, debt, utilities and many other things we still have around need to be paid with real money. I spent over three years offering skills and presentations for free because I believed in sharing and spreading things that are useful to people. But ended up indebted (as I had to pay for supplies, transportation and sometimes rent or accommodation when I travel far). The result? Sometimes people wouldn’t show up, or only a few would…yes, I also have many rewards: I met extraordinary people and change some people’s perspectives about food production, lifestyles or disaster planning.  But there has to be another way…

Also, if we want to include more and benefit those who truly need it, we have to think hard on how to make this fair: many can’t afford volunteering and some have not enough useful skills, services or goods to exchange, or have them but what they receive in exchange is not enough to eat and pay their rent.


  • Talking about People Care and being inclusive without actually being inclusive: most PDCs take two to three weeks and people need to travel to faraway places, pay for accommodation, meals and transportation. Where is the inclusiveness for those who are old, disabled, work full time or have small children? Many “re-skilling” workshops take place during working hours, and many events that call for volunteers (where one may be re-skilled for free by “doing” the stuff) are also during working days. How can we make these things more accessible?

Telling people (as I have heard and read and even been told by well-intentioned privileged people) that we should prioritize, live by our own values or embrace simplicity and frugality so we can attend to these things is terribly discriminatory and unfair.

Inclusiveness means considering the forces that keep others away or caged and support them in breaking those barriers and accessing that they cannot access: otherwise, we are acting as the same people and systems Permaculture, Degrowth and Transition are supposed to fight.


  • Talking about “choices” as if they were a given to everyone: choices on not having children, on going off the grid and back to the land, on being outside the system, on using their time for healthy and sustainable goals and so on…the fact is that most people dedicated to all these grand things are young, white and coming from developed countries shouldn’t be a surprise. That’s where “choices” are! For 90% (if no more) of people in the world, those choices are completely unaffordable. Even for many who may look like they have, choices may not be there: the lack of choices in our youth may limit us for decades to follow, even when we may now enjoy more “privileges”.

Again, this is must: it is time to stop talking down to people and making them to feel guilty by the choices (or lack of them) they “made” years ago and start looking at ways on how we can support them to make choices now…

I find that all the above issues come from a single root cause: privilege. Privilege comes in different shapes and shades and we have it in different levels. Privilege has nothing to do with your skin colour, religion, culture, social class, mental or physical ability or genre but is shaped by those things and much more.

If we want to embrace “People Care” is time for those in the Permaculture, Degrowth and Transition worlds to stop judging and patronizing and start using true compassion and non-violent communication.

The “observe and interact” on Permaculture should also be a foundation for us to become aware of our own privilege and see the degrees in others as that’s the only way to be truly fair.

It is time to walk the extra mile and truly care: maybe you have land to share or offer for free, or a room for those who can’t afford one, or extra seeds, or skills you don’t mind sharing, or tools and extra time.

Maybe is time for you to go to other people’s homes and meet there or share your skills and ideas there instead of insisting people to come to venues at times and places they can’t afford.

Maybe is time for us to bring Permaculture, Degrowth and Transition where they belong: to those who don’t have the time, resources, energy, health, support, skills or money to afford going out of their way to meet these alternatives to a fair, just, resilient and truly sustainable society.

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”
~ James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name



2 Comments on “A Necessary Conversation

  1. I enjoyed this very much. I wonder, if we let go of our ideas of what other people should be doing, and started to listen to what people need/want, whether this would help revive a radical sense of imagination?

    I don’t think it can come unless all voices are able to shape the conversations which go forward. This is particularly true in countries where structural inequality has shaped possibility.

    Perhaps another important point is language. So many different interventions speak the language of dominant culture. I remember a book on urban design where the writer wrote about the difficulty of English, with it’s reference to things, objects and rationality, when the person’ sown language spoke of processes, flows and connectedness. Z

    Speaking from my own privileged position, I’ve learned that listening is the starting point of any transformational process. Even then, it may be difficult to get it right.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Nicci, you are so right. We can’t export models and we can’t speak with language that is not that of the people we work with…also, as a permaculturist and counsellor, I struggle to find my own place: many of the things I posted here refer to me or the people I work with


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