Pushing the Edges of Permaculture ~ Food Choices, Self- Reliance and Privilege

Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”
~ Noam Chomsky

I have posted about choices and privilege many times. This time is more personal and I want to use the opportunity to explore what keeps so many people trapped in what seems an infinite loop of oppression, struggle and scarcity in a world of abundance where systems tend to balance themselves out of perpetual chaos and imbalance: is this a matter of thinking patterns (i.e stories, in which case we need to act on changing the underlying stories), a way systems work (in which case we need to find the leverage points to intervene and break the resilience of the “wrong” systems)  or a matter of “Good” Vs “Evil” with no way to escape from it but through struggle and revolution, an “Us” Vs “Them”?

Resilience, a word I have been used to exemplify the individual, household or community ability to provide for themselves and resist blows that may otherwise minimize their resources and ability to survive and thrive, can also represent the resilience of an oppressive and unfair system:

Walker and Salt define resilience as, ‘The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedback’ (Walker and Salt 2008) (Thinking Practice, What does Resilience mean anyway?

This means that even a harmful system (remember, systems are not “moral”, they just are…) may use mechanisms and policies to stay as they are, usually benefitting some groups while oppressing others. According to this, Capitalism, Socialism or any other “ism” would become a system with its own feedback loops and flows where at one point it is impossible to introduce changes without being either absorbed and transformed by it or openly rejected through any means.

Permaculture is not an exception to this: similarly like the back-to-land and hippie movements of the 60’s were absorbed by the bigger system and in a way “failed” because either they tended to perpetuate the same structures they were “fighting” by isolating themselves and using (even if unaware or unintentionally) the privilege of a few or because they didn’t understand how systems work and where to find leverage points that would help them to introduce real change (i.e. break the resilience of the oppressive, privilege system).

Rosemary Morrow, my she-ro in using Permaculture to help people in vulnerable communities says in “The Future of Permaculture” (video put together by the amazing crew I have the honour to meet and hang out with a few times a year in the BC Sunshine Coast) says: “There is a danger of stagnating into its present forms and not being able to serve so much of the world population”.

Another way to see this issue is through stories and patterns of thought: they are also part of systems as we cannot escape them (the systems); patterns of thought or stories can lock us into thinking we are disempowered and lack control and choices: they may keep us in a loop where we whine and blame others (the government, corporations, religions, white people, the rich, migrants, etc.) for all our issues. These patterns create anger and encourage violence and separation: an “Us Vs. Them” where nobody really wins and everyone suffers, perpetuating the oppression at both ends and the destruction of the Earth and its ecosystems.

Sophy Banks, another great permaculturist and transitioner who has specialized in “inner transition” also reminds us of the different need levels of both those who are oppressed and lack choices and those who are privileged and/or wealthier in “People in Need” and I wonder how we could put together those complex needs in a way that balances the scale for all the sides and uses compassion instead of furthering the anger and violence.

In permaculture we always talk about “People Care” and “Fair Share/ Return of surplus to Earth and people” but how much of this has actually trickled down to those who most need it: I struggle to teach food sovereignty (I struggle with lack of time and resources, lack of support networks and personal/household dynamics that keep me locked and drain my energies) and still manage to spread some word and skills about regaining control over our food. I am aware of the huge  privilege I carry and that surrounds me: when chatting with my mom last week about me transitioning to veganism she joked “We already did that here” (she lives in Argentina): “we can’t afford meat or dairy”…their forced “veganism”, however, is not a healthy one: they eat mostly pasta and white rice as that’s the only thing they can afford: there are no community gardens in their area and access to tools, seeds and soil are scarce. Community gardens there (as in my second country, Venezuela) struggle against crime and lack or support and even negligence as people find themselves so tired after hours of commuting and working for pennies that the least they want to do is to put their energies in building and maintaining garden plots.

It makes me realize how many others are in the same and even worse situations around the world and what we (who are obviously more privileged by the fact we live in this side of the planet) can do to empower them and create meaningful and lasting change. is that even possible from here? As individuals or groups? Or do we have to all “fight” and hope the big change happens through a (usually bloody and violent) political/social revolution at global scale? Revolutions till now are full of rage and violence and only turn things around in ways that benefit an elite (just that the elite changes hands) and manage to destroy ecosystems and valuable human creations in their way…

When chatting with others, some mention that what keeps people locked into scarcity is related to the stories they tell themselves and allow others to impose on them: but I know firsthand that apart from that (which is very real), there is real scarcity imposed on them: when some groups think it is OK to strip people away from their lands, their tools, their support networks and even the skills they have passed through generations, the scarcity is not imaginary: is very real.

As Rowe (Rosemary Morrow) says: “We have to have ways and means to be present and available to people in difficult situations”

Starhawk, another of my Permaculture she-roes, says in this “Future of Permaculture” vimeo: “my hope is that Permaculture becomes the norm instead of a kind of edge species. To become the way people around the world look at meeting our human needs, because I believe permaculture is a design system that can meet people needs while actually regenerating the environment around us.”

We talk a lot about empowering people, but the true work and challenge is how to facilitate this with compassion and by using leverage points to break the resilience of the oppressive and abusive systems even in cases where the oppressors, abusive and privileges ones don’t see themselves as such (and this is much widespread than we would think, I would say is the norm).

There is no other way but starting with ourselves and our own households and communities: I’ve been working “out there” to facilitate this change a small group at a time, but I haven’t figure out how to do this at my own family level: there is a lot of “resilience” in this system within systems…and one wonders whether some systems are worth the struggle: I can understand why some activists end up giving up and detaching themselves from the “big system”, focusing on their own needs. It can be really exhausting at all levels, even physically and spiritually.

Starhawk gives me strength through this GaiaCraft  “Social Permaculture Journey” video: “If you really believe the Earth is sacred, you can’t just sit back and let idiots destroy her, you have to actually do something about it, and if you really believe spirit is embodied in the world, is imminent in human beings and in nature, then your spiritual journey really takes place in your engagement in the world, not by removing yourself from the world.

She continues: “How we can move from the edges and the fringes to put in forth the actual real solutions we have to incredible difficult problems like climate change, how do we make that a part of the global conversation, how do we counter some of the systems of destruction by actually showing people what the alternatives are and how do we get them adopted.”

That’s my life challenge and my vow to the world: as one of the permaculture grandmothers said (can’t remember who): “If we are to survive as species, it will be through applying some type of Permaculture; if we are not to survive, we have to do permaculture anyway.”

From somewhere in the Sunshine Coast:


History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.”
~ Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro

Resources and references:

The Future of Permaculture featuring Rosemary Morrow from Gaiacraft: https://vimeo.com/137694048

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