On urban permaculture, eco-activism and co-creation of space with non-human animals — a conversation with Becky Ellis
by Gosia Rokicka.
A conversation about urban permaculture, social justice and space for non-human animals with Becky Ellis.
You’re a permaculture practitioner and teacher and at the same time a city dweller. What would you say to people who see permaculture as a land-based design system for growing food and sustainable living on a large scale?
I would say that permaculture is a way to design your life, a way of thinking about how you want to live in balance with non-human nature and with other people as well. It doesn’t require owning private property. While doing my own Permaculture Design Course I lived in a co-op with a communal space and for the following few years I was renting apartments so I didn’t have access to my own piece of land. I got involved in a lot of community projects instead, including a community garden which had certain rules that got in the way of some of the permaculture practices I wanted to do. But learning how to work with other people and how to convince them that some things are worth changing constitutes a part of social permaculture. I was also volunteering for gardening projects for children where I tried to incorporate as much permaculture as possible and it turned out that many people were really interested in the stuff I was so passionate about. Some things I’ve done over the past few years were not related to gardening, such as Mantis Arts & Eco Festival which I put together in my neighborhood, but I still consider them a part of permaculture — bringing people together, helping them to connect and be in community with each other.
The Permaculture Women Guild’s online PDC you’re currently involved in has additional modules on social and emotional permaculture which are not common in other PDCs (both in person and online). Do you reckon this is something women in particular bring to permaculture?
I think women are definitely raised to have more skills for this kind of interpersonal work with other people. We also tend to take on more of the burden it entails — in our relationships, workplaces, communities.
But knowing how to work cooperatively with others is actually a valuable and important skill. I don’t think our biology has anything to do with it but definitely there is something about the way women are raised in most cultures. Social permaculture is something all people need to practice, especially in an urban setting. Even if you have your own backyard most of your surroundings, even if privately owned, are visible to other people.
Speaking of visible… You’ve written about your neighbors worried your “hippie ways” would devalue their properties and about the fact you’re not allowed to keep chickens in your suburban backyard in London, Canada. Do by-laws make it more difficult to practice sustainable living in some places around the world? Are we heading towards the “war on lawns”?
Some people in North American cities are really attached to lawns and to the lawn aesthetic. I think to them it’s more than just an aesthetic. It’s tied to issues of race and class, so challenging it can be really complicated, especially in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods where such aesthetic can be a part of someone’s identity. There is a really interesting book on that subject, “Lawn People”, written by Paul Robbins, a geographer.
For some, having a well kept, visually attractive lawn can be an expression of what they think a good neighbor and a good citizen is. Disrupting this aesthetic can be contentious but it’s important as it highlights the issue of neighborhood segregation.
And neighborhoods in North America are very segregated by class and also by race.
Another thing worth mentioning is suburban mentality — everybody seems to be self-enclosed in their life. “I’ve got my backyard, maybe even a pool in it, I can get everywhere in my car, I don’t need to go out into the community and do stuff with other people”. I see it as a negative thing — in North America we don’t really know how to work together with other people in a cooperative way.
Urban permaculture is promoting community projects in spaces that are public or open to the public. It can be messy, there can be disagreements but working through that is a really important part of learning how to live together with other people. Some big cities like Toronto, Montreal or New York City have diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. But suburbia are harder to reach in that way.
That may come from the fact that in crowded cities people live close to each other, in apartments and townhouses so they are more likely to go out and actually want to share activities with their neighbors.
Absolutely. They also move around by means of walking and biking. But the further out from the center you go, the more people are using their cars. There is this movement to get people on their bicycles more but it requires a shift in attitude. If the only cyclists that are seen are those that do it for fitness reasons, everyday people won’t get inspired.
We need to see more people doing things as a part of a different way of living with other people and with the world. Probably there are some significant cultural attitudes and ideas that prevent people from doing that and also by-laws that seem to be more prevalent in North America than for example in Europe.
There are some communities in Canada where the rules of housing development ban outdoor clotheslines. It’s just this weird idea what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. I think a great aspect of the PDC I’ve done and also the Permaculture Women Guild’s PDC is the part about activism. We can’t change ridiculous by-laws on our own so it’s crucial to know how to get together with other people to work towards a cause.
And another great aspect of the online PDC is that the teachers live in quite a few different countries so it’s a good opportunity to learn how permaculture can adapt to various conditions — no only climate-wise but also society-wise.
People in our society right now are lacking imagination — we can’t see how the world could look like from a different perspective and how we could build it and live in it collectively.
Dystopian visions usually concentrate on quite a grim future but what I love about permaculture is the idea that people don’t necessarily have to be disastrous for the environment.
There are positive ways in which we can engage with non-human nature. As Arundhati Roy wrote: “Another world is possible”. It’s great to see how people live in other places in the world because sometimes North America feels like it’s the center of the universe. The fact that our continent is a superpower that overshadows the world is problematic, so it’s particularly important for us here to be able to imagine different ways of living — and getting there through social movements.
Even if those other places and different perspectives belong to some parts of the world that seem to be completely detached from us — or us from them, I guess? You’ve written about Zone 5 seen as a wilderness from a social rather than environmental perspective. Can you tell us more about it?
One of co-teachers on my PDC, Rain Crowe, came up with the idea of Zone 5 as the wild we have a responsibility towards, whether we visit it or not. And if you are a North American, you would certainly impact those parts of the world you would probably never see. They are a part of your everyday life. In capitalism we are in relationships with people all the time — even if we’re drinking coffee for example. There were people who grew it and people who picked it and people who were involved in the whole process of production and sale. There were animals that were involved in the development of the plant itself. All of this has become invisible in our consumerist society but to me it’s important to highlight these relationships, to make people think about Zone 5. We are a global international community and we have responsibilities to each other: to people and to non-human animals as well.
Animals seem to be quite an important part of your life and work: your Ph.D. thesis is about honeybees, recently you took part in the Minding Animals conference.
I grew up on a small family farm. When I was 15 I moved to a city and have been living in cities since then but I always felt connected to the different animals that lived on the farm with us — both wild and domestic. Early on in my life, at about 11, I became a vegetarian, partly because I did feel a real connection to the animals. I particularly bonded with lambs who quite early were going away to a slaughterhouse.
When I started doing permaculture I wanted to incorporate animals into my design but as a vegetarian on a mostly vegan diet I wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t involve harm or exploitation. And then animals came into my academic life as well. My Ph.D. in geography was meant to pertain to a completely different subject but as I have honeybees and I garden in a way to cater for other pollinators, my supervisor suggested switching to bees because for a Ph.D. you have to be completely obsessed with the topic to stay with it for years.
At the time when I re-entered academia the area of critical animal studies was gaining momentum. It aims to bring together animal activism and academic theory to think differently about the way we live alongside non-human animals.
There are some challenges to be tackled, I touched on one of them in my article about backyard hens.
There are animals that have lived with humans for thousands of years. We have very dramatically altered their genetics and we co-evolved with them in many ways. Chickens are a good example of that and to a certain extent honeybees, although honeybees can go feral without people quite fine. Dogs are another obvious example. We can live in community with these animals benefiting and enriching each other’s lives. I don’t eat animal products but I don’t see why chickens wouldn’t enjoy living alongside a human who provides them with nutritious food and safety from predators, while in return the chickens would help to break down compost and eat some of the insects and slugs which people don’t necessarily want in their gardens in large quantities.
I know not every animal rights activist or vegan would be won over by this idea but that’s how I feel, especially with bees. There are ways to create some really fantastic habitats for bees where they can thrive and flourish. Climate change is a reality and native wild bees are really going to suffer as a result. They need people to create habitats and places for them to forage. On the other hand, we can get honey from honeybees in a way that is not harmful to them. The movement for gentle beekeeping is growing. There are many ways we can live with non-human animals in mutually beneficial ways and that include wild animals. I’m not sure exactly what wild animals visit London, England…
In London, Ontario we’ve got skunks and raccoons. Many people, even those who are into organic gardening, spend a lot of their time going about how to keep animals away, maybe even by killing them — how to get rid of the animals instead of how to live with them. But permaculture spaces are wonderful opportunities to live in relationship with other animals — the domesticated and the wild ones as well. Some of them really thrive in cities, alongside humans.
I like the concept of co-creation with the animals. I try to start to break down this idea that I own my outdoor space and that it’s only mine. Other animals live there and it’s their space too.
We have skunks under our deck. It’s their home, they live with me and we co-create our space together.
In my urban backyard I’m not growing all the food for my family. I understand farmers might have different struggles but in my case I’m happy to share with any animal that visits my backyard. Some of them, like native pollinators, really do need help and cities are actually sanctuaries for them because North American countryside is full of monocrop fields of corn and soy. Honeybees are unhealthy in America, but beekeepers manage the population. But solitary bees are in decline. They have a special relationship with specific plants or they don’t go very far from their nests to get food so monocrops are terrible for them. Cities with their diversity of native perennial and annual plants, trees and shrubs in people’s backyards come really useful, especially for native bees. All the honeybees in North America are non-native.
I’m originally from Poland and in Poland more and more boars are coming into cities to look for food.
We’ve got coyotes here. They thrive in cities but people see them as scary. They don’t really pose a risk to humans but they do to cats and small dogs so people get really upset with them. But this is their home too! And in order to have a balanced healthy ecosystem we need predators like coyotes and wasps. People keep complaining about shrews and moles and voles… Foxes are their natural predators so if you wish the population of rodents was kept under control, create a safe space for these predator animals. Foxes sometimes can make a den in your backyard — for a mama fox it could be safer to stay close to humans than out in the wild where coyotes may prey on her babies. My neighbors try to get rid of the skunks, while I hope “my” skunk will have babies this year. It’s hard to convince people to have that kind of a different relationship with non-human animals but I keep trying.
People seem to be happier to care for endangered species, such as hedgehogs for example in Europe, than for those they see as vermin.
I absolutely agree and I think humans really have to learn how to live with non-human nature in a way that’s not completely destructive but they seem to be resistant to this knowledge. Again: this is about these strange concepts what belongs in the city and what doesn’t and what private property really means.
We put up fences to mark what’s ours and what we want to keep out but it doesn’t work for non-human nature.
But I see a glimpse of change in attitude: theoretically front yards are private but in a way they are a pseudo-public space. Sometimes you can even engage with your neighbors over what they don’t like in your front yard! In mine we put up a little free library. In the spring we put seeds in there as well. There is a bus stop just outside so we built a bench where people can sit and relax while waiting for a bus. They use it a lot! There are many ways to break down boundaries that have been put up.
That brings us to another issue: in North America we are a settler society, created out of violent colonialism, which continues in many ways in Canada and the United States. So the whole idea of property ownership here is… problematic at least. I’ve been trying to get people to think differently about being a steward of land rather than its owner. In cities some people say: “I don’t have a piece of land, I can’t do anything” but that’s not true. Think about your local park: it’s yours. It belongs to people in the neighborhood as a collective. This is what makes permaculture quite revolutionary in cities. There could also be a link to movements against racism and injustice. You don’t need to own a backyard in the city. And even if you do, you should also engage in other community undertakings because this is a really impactful way to make a huge difference. This is permaculture activism.
#urbanpermaculture #foodnotlawns #permaculturewomen
Becky Ellis teaches the Urban Permaculture module in the Permaculture Women’s Guild online permaculture design course. Learn more from her there or catch up with her at her website, www.permacultureforthepeople.org.
by Becky Ellis
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
The permaculture movement began as a re-imagining of agrarian landscapes but it has exciting emancipatory potential in re-imagining how cities might become places in which humans and nature co-create and co-operate. Urban permaculture allows us to create ecologically regenerative spaces in our individual lives and in collective spaces.
Lack of access to land is often raised as a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in North America, both rural and urban, is prohibitively expensive for many people. Many permaculture practices are based on land ownership including the creation of perennial gardens, the growing of food forests, major earthworks such as berms and swales and the building cob structures.
In cities, access to land is one of the biggest obstacles for people hoping to practice permaculture. Land in the city tends to be very expensive and zoning rules mean that some practices may be forbidden in certain parts of the city (for example, animals considered ‘livestock’).
In this mini class we will discuss strategies for accessing land in cities.
Accessing Land in Cities
Although access to land for urban agriculture projects can be an obstacle, people have found a variety of creative ways to overcome this barrier.
Additionally, there is a growing movement around the world for public food forests, community farms and collective apiaries. Collective projects in public spaces can be an important way to begin to reclaim the commons and can help to disrupt the concept of private property. This is an important part of beginning to grapple with what it means to decolonize our cities. We can begin to shift our language and practice from one of ownership of land to one of caretaking and attachment. I have found it very useful to, while retaining my community activism and grassroots organizing, find some allies within city governments whether that be staff or city councilors.
Now that we’ve discussed strategies for accessing land in cities it’s time for you to explore these strategies first hand. A recommended way to start would be to find an urban permaculture project and volunteer for one hour. Do whatever is needed but be sure to talk to people about their experiences while you work alongside them. If you can’t find an urban permaculture project, find a community garden or urban farm.
This material is excerpted from the Urban Permaculture module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Becky Ellis.
Becky Ellis is a permaculture educator and community activist in London, Ontario, Canada. Becky is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Western University. Her research project is focused on the relationship between people and urban bees. Becky maintains the blog Permaculture for the People https://permacultureforthepeople.org and regularly gives workshops and presentations about urban permaculture, community gardening, and gentle beekeeping. She embraces the challenge of bringing permaculture (and honeybees!) to the suburbs.
Further reading on this topic:
Flores, Heather. Food not Lawns: How to run your yard into a garden and your neighbourhood into a community. Chelsea Green, 2006. A fabulous, in-depth guide to permaculture, especially focused on cities by our very own Heather Jo Fores. This book has a very good focus on community organizing - unlike some permaculture books it does not simply focus on transforming private spaces. It’s so inspiring that it spawned, Food not Lawns activist groups throughout the continent.
Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why they succeed, how they fail. Vintage Books, 1977. This is another older book that is a classic. In this book Piven and Cloward examine movements of and BY poor people. This book has been deeply influential and also puts forward the argument that poor people’s movements must be self-organized not implemented for them by well-meaning (or not) do-gooders. One of my favourite activist organizations is part of this movement - the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
#urbanpermaculture #communitylandtrusts #guerrillagardening #publicland #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
The permaculture movement began as a re-imagining of agricultural, rural landscapes but it has exciting emancipatory potential in co-creating cities that are filled with multispecies abundance. Urban permaculture allows us to create ecologically regenerative spaces both individually and collectively.
People have lived in cities — large, permanent settlements — for thousands of years. Since the turn of 20th century, the rate of urbanization has increased steadily throughout the world, with an especially intense growth after the 1950s. Currently, the majority of the world’s people live in cities, a trend that is expected to continue into the future which makes the potential impact of urban permaculture huge and far-reaching. There are multiple problems with cities but at their heart they are dynamic, vibrant, and diverse. Cities have the potential to be destructive and to increase people’s sense of alienation from each other and non-human nature. But they also have the potential to be lively and vibrant places filled with collective innovation and creativity. Creating ecologically regenerative and socially just cities is one of the most important tasks of permaculture.
Although urban permaculture can be limited to private, backyard spaces, many practitioners either have no access to private property or, want to extend beyond the limits of their property to collectively envision and create vibrant and revitalized collective spaces.
Benefits of Urban Permaculture
The flourishing of urban nature
While cites are sometimes dismissed as concrete jungles they are in fact filled with an abundance of non-human nature. In fact, some animals and plants thrive in cities. Recent studies by entomologists, for example, have found that some species of native bees prefer cities to the countryside due to the presence of less pesticides and more floral and habitat diversity. When we consider that many rural areas are filled with oceans of monocultures with islands of intense animal agriculture, it makes sense that many animals and plants flourish in cities.
Urban permaculture is especially important in co-creating spaces in which non-human urban natures thrive alongside people. The regenerative urban ecosystems we create will be filled with an amazing variety of insects, mammals, birds, and a wide diversity of volunteer plants.
This relationship is not one-sided — we can also benefit from the diversity of non-human nature in cities. For example volunteer plants — commonly known as weeds — can be important sources of food and medicine.
Access to Resources
Cities are wonderful places to practice permaculture because they contain a wide variety of resources, sometimes in the form of other people’s garbage. In many ways cities epitomize the permaculture principle that the problem is the solution. The things that people consider garbage — or sell cheaply at garage sales and thrift stores — may prove to be very useful in permaculture projects. For example, all kinds of containers useful for gardening can be found on the curb on garbage day.
Cities also contain other resources that are under-utilized. For example, cardboard boxes can be used for sheet mulching, newspapers can be used for vermicompost bedding, and leaves make perfect mulch.
Lastly, cities contain anywhere from thousands to millions of people. Many people have both resources and skills to share. This has led to the development of a true sharing economy with the creation of little free libraries, tool libraries, seed libraries and co-operatives of all kinds. Although still on the edges of mainstream society, people have experimented with the sharing of skills in a variety of ways including community resource mapping and bartering networks.
Communities of difference
One of the most important benefits of creating permaculture projects in cities is that urban neighbourhoods can more easily develop into vibrant communities based on difference.
This reaffirms one of the most important principles of permaculture — that diversity creates resilience. Perhaps the most exciting thing about permaculture in cities is that it allows us to collectively imagine a different kind of world, one that is ecologically regenerative and socially just. Join the permaculture movement and actively create a regenerative future shared by all.
Thanks for reading!
I'm a permaculture educator and anti-racist, feminist activist in London, ON, Canada. I am currently a PhD candidate in Geography at Western University, where I study the relationship between people and bees in cities. My M.A. in Anthropology, also at Western University, focused on gentrification and belonging in a community garden in Toronto. I live in a suburban permaculture sanctuary with my family, two dogs, three cats, two bunnies, and thousands of gorgeous, busy bees. I maintain the blog Permaculture for the People.
Want to know more?
I am so excited to be teaching urban permaculture as part of the first online Permaculture Design Certificate taught exclusively by women. If you would like to know more or would like to have me as your permaculture design reviewer, please check out my blog and get in touch with me at email@example.com.
#growyourown #foodnotlawns #urbanpermaculture
by Ridhi D’Cruz
Excerpted from our double certificate design course
We often think about permaculture as the noble practice of regenerative land management. But as I’ve walked this path, I have also realised that collaborating with land is a source of deep healing for people that is differently accessible to people. For healthy human and ecological communities then, we must look at the barriers of access to land and creative solutions to equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.
Some groundbreaking work that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in is my work in Portland with City Repair. We work hard to increase opportunities for stewarding land in urban areas in unconventional ways. City Repair has facilitated over 500 projects in the public right-of-way, or on private land but for public benefit, through education all over the city of Portland. In this way we are able to cater to both landowners and renters. Projects have included over 50 intersection paintings, over two dozen earthen buildings and various gardens.
The main idea behind these projects is to revive the urban commons by reclaiming street intersections with public art, ecological landscaping, earthen buildings and other community amenities that invite hyper local community building and resilience. These projects are scalable to meet the needs, desires and capacities of the communities themselves. In fact, project proposals come from the communities, and City Repair just supports these initiatives with our experience and social capital.
We focus on the commons because it is an integral piece of a regenerative culture that often gets lost in big cities. In most of contemporary society, economic capital is valued so much more than social and ecological capital that we often make decisions that fray the complex web of relations that support a healthy place. Our creative placemaking initiatives are an attempt at physically and psychologically re-patterning cities with a more sustainable culture by giving people the opportunity to have power in their places irrespective of whether or not they ‘own’ it.
People have gone on to make various community amenities including cob ovens, benches and kiosks, permaculture gardens from parking strips to community orchards, little free libraries and intersection paintings that tell the unique story of that place and its inhabitants.
The Urban Commons
The Dialogue Dome cob bench in the background is one of the main reasons I ended up choosing to pursue my Masters degree at Portland State University (PSU). There is something profoundly powerful about an earthen building in a public space in the middle of downtown Portland, adjacent to our student union building. This picture was taken at the end of the Village Building Convergence (VBC) 2014, where the last day of the 10-day urban permaculture festival was hosted by us students at our cob oven just to the right. Due to fire-related issues, the cob oven was removed in 2017.-- Photo by passerby, 2014.
A colleague at the Student Sustainability Center (formerly the Sustainability Leadership Center) had worked out an agreement with our State Department of Transportation via the Adopt a Highway Program. We made an agreement to steward the strangely triangular shaped plot of land adjacent to the freeway as a community orchard and gathering place. For our opening of the space, we inoculated mycelium into cardboard and embedded them into the soil. Photo taken by campus photographer, 2011.
We hosted a VBC placemaking site at PSU and built a Peace on Earthbench in our new community orchard. The site has had challenges in terms of activity with transient folks that we are still trying to work out. My dream is to integrate a program that includes transient people into the site’s stewardship, turning a problem into a solution..
This parking strip food forest designed by fellow permaculturalist Marisha Auerbach has transformed my understanding of urban food production. We collaborated with our sister organization Communitecture, and harvested pounds upon pounds of fresh delicious fruit every summer when we were renting our shared office space there.-- Photo by passerby, 2016.
In 2017, we won a grant through the Bureau of Environmental Services to install pollinator-friendly species on parking strips adjacent to intersection repairs. This is a picture of us installing a pollinator parking strip at SE 11 & Clatsop by Ayomide’s rental home. With limited financial resources and as a renter, these small interventions substantially impact the lives of our community members.-- Photo by one of our City Repair volunteers, 2017.
First created at our campus garden is the Grazing Garden, adjacent to the cob oven and dialogue dome on campus. This public altar was the culmination of us reviving the garden after it had been lying dormant for a few years. One of the biggest challenges with the commons is creating a resilient culture of stewardship that maintains its health along with the neighboring communities’ health.
Painting the street outside my current residence, Portland’s second mid-block street painting. The mid-block painting was an amendment we made in 2015 to our intersection painting ordinance from 1996 to ensure that one of our community members was able to breathe life into the vision of her community.-- Photo by Ridhi D’Cruz, 2015.
A suggestion for how you could tend the Commons in your area would be to volunteer with an ecological restoration project including: water commons (river/beach clean up), nature commons (invasive species removal in a park), food commons (work parties at community orchards/ food forests).
This material is excerpted from the Placemaking module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Ridhi D'Cruz.
Ridhi D’Cruz is one of three co-Executive Directors of City Repair, a Portland, Oregon based nonprofit working on community development, permaculture and urban design. As an intercontinental cross-pollinator, sociocultural anthropologist, and permaculture educator who has been living in Portland since 2010, Ridhi participates, facilitates, and supports various initiatives in the areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Placemaking, Capacity Building, Houseless Advocacy, Native American Allyship, Cultural Sustainability, and Social Permaculture. She is also a passionate herbalist, urban wildcrafter, natural building and participatory technology enthusiast, animal lover, and urban permaculture homesteader.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Further reading on this topic:
Kaddachi, Aurore and Sapru, Tanviya. Vruksha: Bangalore’s tree doctor is determined to save the ‘Garden City’ of India.
Citi Io. Our Modern Grid Design for Cities: Not so modern after all.
#urbancommons #urbanpermaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen
#streetpainting #foodforest #foodnotlawns
Global Economic Crisis
You could say that I probably got into Permaculture through the economical doorway. I was working in real estate when the 2007–2009 global economic crisis hit and although it didn’t (immediately) pose a financial problem to me (I had earned well in the rise up to the crisis), it sure did leave a foul taste in my mouth on the social side of things. I had to fire people on the sales team, work the very few leads out there still double as hard, withstand lies told to customers by colleagues of other real estate agencies down the road as we were all after the same few “fish” in the sea,… it sure felt like it was a war zone out there, where everyone was competing for their share of the sinking cheesecake. This is the moment when I stepped out of the branch and went looking for a Change.
Right now, house sales have gone up again here on the Balearic Islands and tourism never stopped growing due to other areas in the Mediterranean Sea Basin like Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and even Greece still being somewhat uncertain holiday destinations due to terrorist acts and refugees from Syria. Unemployment is down, spending is up once more and the papers talk about yet another record hitting season this 2018. We are out of the dark hole they say…
The global economic crisis of some ten years ago might seem over when you read through this little list, but it surely still is fresh on my mind, and I am actually even weary about a next one being right around the corner.
House sales are up to foreign buyers only.
Tourism is putting an extreme strain on the island’s resources, starting with water and on a par: long term residential rental properties are almost impossible to pay now.
Jobs are aplenty yes but wages haven’t gone up, so spending power is lower for locals and the doctors have had a ball writing sick notes last summer 2017 due to burnout.
Growth is something very natural. In nature, things don’t keep on growing forever though. Plants grow, people grow… and then… they die. It’s the cycle of life. An old growth forest is a system that is made up of many elements, some are in their growth phase, others are in their decline phase. Between them all, they keep the system going.
This stage of collaboration and accepting that there necessarily are phases of decline or cycles (the plants in decline become the soil and nutrition for the new plants) is something we humans have not yet understood as a species. If we want to avoid the decline of the entire system (our planet) we better hurry up to get to that stage of understanding.
Just as with the Social or Political Invisible Structures, we need to know exactly what it is we are working with when talking about the Economic Systems so that we can make a hypothesis as to why things are out of whack, to then start working on our design to get back on track (Permaculture Principle “Observe & Interact” at work).
As I got more familiar with the principle “The Problem is the Solution”, I got more and more interested in the Economy and how our current capitalist model is pushing us beyond the limits of our ecosystem. I wanted to be able to design our way out of the mess and therefore had to start with … observation and analyzing. I personally learnt an enormous amount about the economy of today through taking the Integral Permaculture Academy’s mini-course on “Eco-Economy”.
I have recently finished a 6 month stretch of working on a module for a spectacular Online Permaculture Design Course that I co-facilitate together with 40 other female Permaculture Women’s Guild Designers from all over the world. It sure was spectacular on the Invisible Structures side of things, which is what my module focuses on, together with the Design for our Inner Landscape. In the course I talk about all of those Invisible Structures, but as a colleague goes into much more detail about the Economic Systems in her module, I brought my thoughts on those systems into this Medium post.
Let’s look at some of the most important concepts we need to understand before we can start any design involving the Economic Invisible Structures.
When we think about the economy, often we think about money. What is money? Money as such is definitely not a bad thing. It is one form of energy that circulates through our system. It is a store of value that we collectively assigned to it, and it is based on confidence.
It was designed to make connections possible between humans over larger distances.
What history tells us is that when our horizons expanded and direct bartering on the road got too hard (it isn’t always easy to find the person who has exactly what you want and you have exactly what she wants when you are traveling), some items got introduced that were recognized to have value elsewhere too. So “money” came into being.
Today’s money however has little to do with that original trust in a seashell or a block of salt that goes back 5000 years. These days we might do good in not placing too much of our confidence in money, as any Argentinian person can probably tell you (the peso suffered massive inflation in 1990 and has been unstable for a while).
Why not? Money these days is made up out of thin air and it is not the government printing our notes as some people believe. It is the bank that types in some numbers on a screen and as by magic you have money in your account.
For the privilege of them giving you something they actually don’t have themselves, they also charge you interest, and you are saddled with a debt. In the latest crisis many people lost their homes to the banks. So the banks end up winning always: they either get money in return for the thin air they created your loan from, or they get a property! To top it off, when they then fly too high and burn their wings, our (tax payers’) money (borrowed from them with interest and/or worked very hard for) is then used to bail them out of trouble.
Whenever I tell this story or write it down, I feel that this currently is the biggest story we need to share, and make people aware of. Debt is not natural, therefore it is not sustainable.
Why is this not front page news everywhere?
Apart from many invested interests (pun intended) I believe it is because we lack new, positive stories. We need success stories, examples of good practices, a practical design to do it better. Something achievable to work towards.
We maybe feel that getting out of this mess is too big a task for us, and that we are firmly held in the grips of our debt. But there are many examples out there of complementary and local currencies in operation.
Small steps may take us a long way (small and slow solutions are the way to go!). Going back to our basic needs (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), we must be able to make the distinction between them and our wants, as Max-Neef points out, and particularly realize the impact elsewhere in the system of our ways of satisfying our “needs”. The comparison between Maslow’s and Max-Neef’s needs becomes necessary in today’s economic system, and you can read about it in this other Medium Article by Neha Khandelwal.
I mostly graphically represent this by drawing two apples on the board. One of them is the Apple-logo. The younger students I work with tend to immediately recognize that one. The other apple, the one that you can eat, is always second… and no I don’t think that has to do with my drawing skills. Which of those apples is a basic need and which represents a “want”?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that “wants” are all bad. Of course I want to stay in touch with people, work from home, record my photographs and speak to my family in Belgium. I can do all that on any brand of computer though, or if I really do value the apple logo enough to pay the higher price for it, then I maybe don’t have to change the model for a new one every time one comes out…
Apples aside, it’s known that the capitalist system we live in purchases growth. Therefore “they” must sell more. Marketing helps them to achieve that. The system plays on our “wants”, and we are led to believe that we can satisfy our needs with items such as an iPhone or food packaged in colorful boxes.
The more “wants” we have, and we will — because our needs are often not satisfied, the more we have to recur to interest based loans, or in other words, we are spending money we don’t have whilst at the same time sending money up the chain (of those bankers and the already wealthy corporate world that sells us such items).
Maybe we should re-educate ourselves, and understand that capitalism is a polarizing system. Ever more money is flowing up that chain to the top, it surely isn’t trickling down as what they want us to believe. The divide is getting bigger. More and more people end up underneath the poverty line. Being in debt becomes a social epidemic with a lot of consequences (think Big Pharma, junk food chains causing loss of our soil as well as loss of our health, crime…)
But enough of the doomsday information overload. Permaculture is about solutions. Here I’d like to present you some very simple steps to boost your confidence in taking control over the Economic Invisible Structures in your design.
Solutions: Permaculture and Economics
When looking at your personal economy, it’s good to have a base understanding of the following concepts.
Invest in & like Ecosystems
Invest in Ecosystems: buy livestock, trees, plants, seeds, buy land and steward it, buy local produce from your farmer, study local flora and get really good at foraging (there is so much free food all around!)…
The point being: you won’t be able to eat those classic motorbikes or those tons of designer handbags when the going gets tough and nobody around you has any cash to buy them off you.
Invest like Ecosystems: Diversify! Use the principle of redundancy and diversity, which create stability and resilience, have different income streams, your skill base might be a good start or you might want to check out the 8 forms of Capital by Ethan Roland. Sign up for your local LET group or Time Bank*. Up the faith and jump out of your comfort zone.
Also look at where your passion lies, and see if you could make it into an income stream. Design your Right Livelihood. It’s good to be using several economic systems and currencies at the same time, so you will not depend on any one system alone. Capitalism is not going to go away any time soon, but on its own, it’s too fragile a society we’d be living in, not resilient at all.
Live within your limits
Know what you have (your resource base — and don’t forget foraging, free food!) and don’t cross your limits. It’s exactly what we have to do on the planetary level, so we might as well start with ourselves. Another solution lies in how you act as a consumer. How about giving yourself enough time to think it through before you make a purchase.
There is a set of questions you could run through before actually buying anything, which could go something like this: Do I need this (basic needs!)? Do I maybe already own something like it (know your resource base!)? Can I borrow this from someone I know? Can I source this from a second hand store? Can I actually afford it? Etc.
If you have already crossed your limits, look at designing your way back up to the black numbers rather than stay in the red. It might be daunting but there is professional help out there too. As before, don’t hesitate to ask for help. It is not worth suffering over it for any longer than need be.
As we have crossed our limits as a society a while back (currently we are using 3.6 planets’ worth of resources as a species), the only option for those of us in the developed world is Degrowth. It is not going to be a choice anymore any time soon, so we best get used to it now already.
Would you be involved in arms or drugs trafficking? Would you invest in deforestation or petroleum companies that chop big chunks of the amazon down? Would you support big pharmaceutical companies that are under the suspicion of actually wanting to keep us sick as a society, and now even are one and the same as the big agro companies that destroy the livelihoods of our local farmers? I am guessing your answer to there questions is no.
You then need to know that your bank might be involved in them and that this is probably where your money is being used, because those are the investments that give most returns.
So if you don’t want to invest in those activities, di-vest your money out of your bank. It’s a job and a half yes, but it is doable and it is very much worth it. Being honest here, I have not yet been able to move my own mortgage to another bank.
Check out your area for ethical banks through this link if you are in Europe.
Also vote with your money. Try to buy local products as much as you can. Steer away from big corporations that are known to play a huge part in destroying our environment, our social networks or our public health and don’t invest anymore in the likes of Coca Cola, Monsanto, Nestlé and many other brands that are often one and the same as can be seen on some chart images that float around the web.
Share your surplus
Don’t charge interest on any personal loan you may give a friend or family member, your abundance now is reinvested in a cycle that will cultivate social capital and it wíll return to you!
Don’t have a massive savings account: Debt is unnatural, so is hoarding. Even a hamster self-regulates and stops eating so much (and therefore hiding food) when the warmth of spring returns. You can have a saving accounts or a piggy bank by all means, it is a sign of a good Design for Catastrophe/Resilience, but anything more than that is based on fear and is not helping the local economy. Money is a flow of energy, and like anything stagnant, it stops working. One note of 10€ in your bank account is just that… 10€. If you spend 10€ in your local economy, it jumps up in value to 100€ just by passing through the hands of 10 people. Remember the principle of cycling energy.
Don’t charge for any spaces you might have available to share, or charge only a fair price to share in the costs: On this note, I can tell you about how our association PermaMed’s demo sites are on property that has been donated to us, or assigned to us to steward if you will, and there is even a “Land-bank” here on the island of Mallorca, where property that cannot be tended to by the owners is offered to people who are looking for a piece of “dirt” to grow food on, mostly just charging the cost of the water or agreeing on a part of the harvest to go to the owner.
Share your crop: you have loads of almonds, apricots, tomatoes, leeks, corn cobs… at the same time? Are you seriously going to can them all? Why not share what you can’t eat, and get some diversity in return. And as the saying goes: where 2 eat, 3 can eat too. Never hesitate to invite someone to your table and share a meal.
On the other hand, don’t stretch yourself to share what you actually really can’t (again, I am a good example of doing just that), because as one Permaculture Design Course teacher of mine likes to say: “You can’t be green, if you are in the red”, so it would be a priority to not be in the red. Guard your limits. Just as with your physical and emotional boundaries for your Inner Landscape Design, these limits are important for the longevity of your projects.
More detailed information on the Economic Systems in the mark of the Permaculture Invisible Structures can be found in Lucie Bardos’ latest Medium article. She is one of my 40 international & expert co-facilitators in the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Course which has just opened for early bird enrollment.
I myself take you on a journey through the Inner Landscape and we look at the Invisible Structures in general, explore what they area within the social, economic and political dimensions, and how we can design for them in our projects. Wanna join us on this tremendous learning experience? Click on this link for the complete information.
Dana Meadows was hugely important to the birth of Permaculture, by co-authoring the “Limits to Growth” Report of the Club of Rome in 1972. Together with the looming oil crisis of 1973, this stimulated Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to get designing for a permanent agriculture. This is her take on Sustainable Economies.
Helena Norbert-Hodge is a very inspirational lady as is the film she made in Ladakh: The Economics of Happiness.
Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economy works with boundaries and basic human needs. Fantastic! She also offers loads of economic history and poses some neat questions.
Ellen McArthur’s Circular Economy was presented to me at the R.I.E. gathering in 2015 (Iberian Ecovillage Reunion) in Navarra, Spain. Based on the principles of cycling energy and producing no waste.
Hazel Henderson states that our economy is based on a big invisible layer that she calls the “Love Economy”. Riane Eisler builds on this in her Tedx talk on The Caring Economy. They both refer back to the backbone of our society being… the women… Caring & Loving… invisible in the GDP.
Some ideas for improving access to nature connection if you, or someone you are close to, has an illness or disability meaning they find it difficult to be outdoors.
Studies over the last few years have consistently demonstrated that being in nature is beneficial for both our physical and emotional health. From my own observations, I would also add that for many people connecting with the other living parts of Earth also brings increased levels of wellbeing to both the spiritual and social aspects of our lives too.
In my work as a palliative care nurse and as an unpaid Carer of several family members I have witnessed many instances where, being able to be creative about how to connect with nature, can positively influence the quality of life for people who are too unwell or disabled to spend time outside on a regular basis.
Over the past year I have become very unwell and currently spend most of my time in bed. This has given me a great opportunity to reflect further about how disabled people, who for whatever reasons find being outside challenging, can benefit from nature connection.
These are some of the ideas I have collated. Most of which I use in my own life too.
Have beautifully fragranced flowers or pots of herbs inside of a space where you spend a lot of your time. Or perhaps use essential oils in a diffuser, bath, or on a tissue. Essential oils can also help as part of a well-being plan, and some should be used with caution as they can have adverse side effects for you and people/pets around you if their use is not understood well. I can recommend permaculture practitioner and qualified aromatherapist Dave Jackson for guidance and advice. He’s based in Cambridge England, and really happy to provide video consultations for folk who aren’t local to him. Dave’s details are in the resources section below.
Ask a visiting (in real life, or digital) friend or family member to tell you about their experiences of spending time in nature. I’ve found that this can also be a great distraction from the focus always being about my illness too.
Listen to a guided mediation involving sounds of nature: the noise of the sea, river waterfalls, bird song, gentle breeze through long grasses and rain.
Watch films and TV programs about nature. Listen to radio programs and podcasts about the great outdoors
Observe patterns in nature through a window. Watch the earth cycles, seasons and changing skies.
Be creative about nature inspiration such as art, doodling, writing, textile crafts, singing, playing a musical instrument, making a collage, wildlife themed colouring books. I have also found that giving myself thinking and daydreaming time about walks, daytrips, holidays, sunny days, deep snow, summer rain, storms and gardens, for example, has been a wonderful thing to do when more practical activities are too exhausting or painful.
Have an indoor garden of houseplants in a space in the home where you spend a lot of time, which as well as lovely to see, also help to clean the air inside from potential toxins.
With help if needed, create a nature space/table/shelf in a place where you can see it often. Ideas of things to include could be a vase of local flowers, photos, small twigs/branches in a vase, stones, shells, herbs to dry. I have such a space and love to adapt it as the seasons change.
If you are someone who has experience and knowledge about gardening, farming or other nature related activities and knowledge, could you mentor or teach others who would like to learn? Again, this could be face to face, or via digital (or written) communication: — Creating a blog, social media space or writing an article for a local paper, newsletter, or specialist publication.
Sprout seeds and pulses and/or grow herbs on a kitchen windowsill. Really easy to do by yourself, or by someone who helps you. Results in fresh, nutritious home grown food throughout the year.
Reading books, magazines and blogs about nature. Look at nature focused photos and art. Connecting with nature focused social media spaces. Perhaps find (or create) spaces on social media where there are others who are also enjoying and appreciating nature from indoors.
Eat seasonal food and drinks and/or source your food from local growers, farmers and preservers.
Be aware of any sadness, grief or loss you feel about not being able to connect with nature outdoors. Even reading this short article may generate difficult emotions. And that’s ok. I’ve found that talking it through with someone close to you or writing, drawing or any other creative expression can really help, as do other ideas mentioned here.
As well as hopefully providing some useful ideas relating to nature connection and immersion, an additional function of this article is to inspire further discussion about the urgent need for permaculture practitioners to address issues of privilege in accessing permaculture.
There are a huge diverse number of resources relating to the ideas I have written about in this article. If you need some extra inspiration or a starting point. Here are some of my current favourites.
Dave Jackson Aromatherapisthttps://cambridgearomatherapy.com/2012/08/01/cambridge-aromatherapy/
Writing by Flo Scott — Flo has written a number of articles in Permaculture Magazine and also has her own blog at http://permaculturedesigner.co.uk In particular check out Flo’s most recent post “Top 5 things to do in an Indoor Garden”
BBC Radio programmes — all of the following are available as podcasts (or on iplayer for those in the UK) at https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/new
Plus books and YouTube films by Alys
Permaculture Magazine — available via paper or digital subscription plus lots of free content at https://www.permaculture.co.uk/
Lots of fantastic books at Green Shopping https://www.green-shopping.co.uk/
One of my current favourite books from Green Shopping, including many, many gorgeous photos, is No Dig Organic Home and Garden by Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty
‘She Explores’ podcast https://she-explores.com/podcast/
Facebook Group — I have recently created a Facebook Group Permaculture, Chronic illness and Disability, for anyone with an interest in the topic to join. There is already a very friendly and solutions focused culture emerging there, so please come along and join in if you are interested.
Kt Shepherd is a Permaculture Practitioner. You can discover more about her projects and permaculture interests at https://www.ktshepherdpermaculture.com and via her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
All artwork and photos in this article by Kt Shepherd
#permaculture #wellness #gardeningwithdisabilities #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #indoorgardens
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