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Many people who embrace permaculture believe money is evil and want to reject it. While I certainly find numerous shortcomings with our current capitalist economic model, I also can’t help but recognize and be drawn to the rich (pun intended) wealth building resources contained in some of the key permaculture texts. The beauty of the wealth building tools that are part of our permaculture tool kit is that they help us cultivate true personal and community wealth in ways that also enrich the ecosystems which we inhabit.
I’m not talking about excessive, hoarding, or billionaire level wealth. I’m referring to that sense of enough, when you feel secure and all of your needs are met allowing you to redistribute surplus wealth in regenerative ways.
Why is it so natural in permaculture to presume and design for abundance and regeneration in our landscapes, but not our personal finances? Am I the only one that gets excited about the idea of a bunch of us finding ways to earn money doing regenerative things we enjoy that are part of the solution knowing that we are diverting that money from greedy planet-destroying billionaires and corporations in the process???
Permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison himself is quoted as once stating “..it’s no good any longer just being an organic gardener or farmer, we have to be effective financial and political units….we have to become bankers.” That’s going to be very difficult to do if we keep avoiding money.
Sowing Seeds of Wealth
As for my own regenerative money journey, I didn’t discover permaculture until a little over ten years ago when I was almost 40 years old. By that time I had been working and contributing to retirement accounts for about ten years. I had already moved most of the money in those accounts into socially responsible mutual funds. Even with my money in those funds though, I was still dissatisfied because it was supporting extractive companies and industries that don’t align with my permaculture values.
About the time I took my permaculture design course I read two paradigm shifting books:
The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin.& Joe Dominguez
That first book opened my mind to the possibilities of designing a life and livelihood outside of an office cubicle. The second got me to recognize that time is a much more limited resource than money and that my job might actually be providing me a lot less money than I thought in exchange for my valuable time.
Then a dear friend introduced me to Mr. Money Mustache, which led me to the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community. Not long after that came blogs like Afford Anything, and Our Next Life. Here was an online world of people, many even in their twenties and thirties, prioritizing quality of life and peace of mind. They were optimizing their earning, spending, and investing to create work-optional lives for themselves.
The knowledge and people I was exposed to during that PDC strongly reinforced and complemented the ideas I was absorbing from those books and websites, further arming me with helpful resources and motivation to begin applying the concepts in my own life.
Designing My Exit Strategy
I wasn’t a super earner or saver earlier in life, but I’ve always had a pretty strong aversion to debt for which I’m extremely grateful. I made it out of college in the early 90’s with minimal student loan debt by today’s standards (although it felt oppressive then). The only other debt I’ve ever carried was the mortgage on my first home in Washington, DC.
The purchase of that home in a then under-appreciated neighborhood proved to be a catalytic step in my journey to financial resilience. I was able to purchase it for only $1,500 down back in 2004 through NACA, a first time home buyers program. During most of the years I lived in that house I was working for non-profits on projects that were meaningful to me with colleagues, who became friends. But I was also dealing with some minor chronic health issues and there was a good bit of travel involved with those jobs that I felt was exacerbating them.
With all of these FIRE and lifestyle design ideas in my head I eventually honed in on the fact that my non-profit job at that time was largely funded by grants from two foundations. Each year I drafted my employer’s grant proposal for these foundations, which included funds for hiring consultants to deliver our programming. I realized that if my boss were amenable to the idea I could resign from my full-time job and write myself into their grants as a part-time consultant. This would give my employer the best of both worlds as they could hire someone to replace me and still have access to all of my knowledge, experience, and social capital in that world.
Fortunately, the senior leadership was open to the idea. This change reduced my workload to anywhere from 5 to 20 hours per week. It was more if I traveled, which I still did about once a month, but that was much more tolerable when my overall workload had decreased significantly. I was able to charge a decent amount for my consulting services, but my plan also included the additional financial security I had learned about through the FIRE blogs called househacking. I had had a bathroom installed in the basement a year prior so I moved my bed down there and rented out the upstairs of my house to a roommate.
My life continued this way for three very enjoyable years. Eventually though, I decided I wanted to leave DC to live somewhere that compelled me to be outdoors more (winters in DC are cold, gray, and windy; summers are very hot and humid) and wasn’t going to be such an expensive place to age as a single female.
Tending My Socially Conscious Wealth Garden
I somewhat ironically settled back in St. Petersburg, FL (I had fled this city after graduating from high school and college here when it had a very different vibe and was still known as God’s waiting room) with its strong sustainable urban agriculture community and flat roads where I could easily ride my bike back and forth to my heart’s content. The proceeds from the sale of that DC house I had purchased for $1,500 down enabled this debt-averse woman to buy a house free and clear here with a little bit of a savings cushion leftover removing some major financial stress.
I was unsure how to proceed though, in my efforts to create a life of financial stability in an environmentally and socially conscious way. FIRE websites provide very clear roadmaps for people that involve investing in the stock market or building out a real estate investment portfolio, neither of which appeal to me. (Creative and ethical real estate investing does hold a lot of potential for permaculture wealth building,. I just personally do not have any interest in owning additional properties at the moment.)
Permaculture on the other hand, lacked a clear wealth building road map (Mike Hoag of Transformative Adventures and I are trying to change that!), examples of people who are managing their retirement savings in socially responsible ways, as well as deep conversations about aging/retirement planning and what a barrier to living our permaculture dreams access to healthcare can be here in the U.S.
I didn’t want to go on this learning journey alone though, so I started my blog now called Rich & Resilient Living in hopes that I could crowdsource the roadmap. One important thing I had learned about in the years after my PDC is the self directed retirement account. This type of account allows people to invest in a wide range of investments outside the stock market in a tax advantaged account. I had opened one of these accounts and started researching more socially conscious investing options outside Wall Street. I was hoping to connect through my new website with others and learn about other investing options. One of the first investments I made through my SDIRA was to purchase an ownership share of a local ten acre woman-led permaculture farm.
These little known accounts are only used by about 4% of Americans (variations also exist in the U.K., Australia, and Canada), but I’m still surprised there isn’t more discussion about these self directed retirement accounts in permaculture spaces, especially by those of us like me, who encounter permaculture after having already amassed some retirement savings. The number one asset class conventional SDIRA account holders invest in is real estate. Imagine that! We could be purchasing millions of dollars worth of conventional farmland and converting them to regenerative agriculture instead while simultaneously creating innovative land access and ownership pathways with that money in our retirement accounts instead of supporting so many unethical companies.
Exploring Permaculture Wealth Building Resources
I also knew there were teachings and resources in the permaculture texts that would help me cultivate a broader, more expansive, and resilient base of true wealth that would benefit others as well (instead of harming them).
One of the most well known and often taught concepts from the finances and economics petal of the permaculture flower are the 8 forms of capital. They were originally outlined by Ethan Roland Soloviev and Gregory Landua. I remembered them from my PDC and looked to them first. Over the past few years I’ve come to view these multiple forms of capital as one of the foundations for permaculture wealth building.
Once it dawned on me that we only want financial capital to access all of the other forms of capital it led me to a couple other realizations:
- If we can find ways to directly obtain the non-monetary capital we need without using financial capital (money) to access those items we can keep more of our money to stabilize our own finances or steward it in a more regenerative way.
- True resilience and quality of life resides in the non-monetary forms of capital. Financial capital is extremely volatile and speculative.
- The 8 forms of capital center us in abundance. We are more connected, creative, and engaged when operating in the realm of the non-monetary forms of capital. Financial capital keeps us isolated and in a fearful scarcity mindset.
This message of the multiple forms of capital has also been very well received by audiences outside of permaculture. I was even invited on ChooseFI one of the most popular FIRE podcasts to discuss them. During the episode the hosts noted that I had provided them with a new vocabulary for something which they had previously lacked a way to describe.
Another helpful stepping stone along my way was delving into the work done by the group that teamed up around 2008 to establish the now defunct Financial Permaculture Institute. Ethan and Gregory were joined by other permaculture leaders including Eric Toensmeir and Jennifer English Morgan as well as investment banker Catherine Austin-Fitz, of Solari, Inc in this effort.
As Toensmeir outlined on a post about the institute on his website, financial permaculture is applying “permaculture design to create financial, economic and enterprise models that regenerate the planet.” Another insightful piece on financial permaculture by Jennifer English Morgan if your curiosity is peaked was previously published here in the Permaculture Women Magazine.
Financial permaculture though, as that group pursued it, was focused on the macro level of enterprise development (permaculture business planning), local investing, and economic development. And yes, those things are super important and related, but I was seeking a more micro level and individual approach for what I could be doing in my own life with my own money beyond reducing my consumption and sourcing from local, regenerative producers.
So I went back to the wealth and livelihood chapters in permaculture texts like Rosemary Morrow’s Earth Lover’s Guide to Permaculture, Toby Hemenway’s The Permaculture City, Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, and more recently David Holmgren’s latest RetroSuburbia. And even though all of the these books referenced them, it was Mike Hoag’s blog posts and YouTube videos that really drew my attention to what I’ll call the permaculture asset classes for lack of a better term (more to come on these in the next section.).
Permaculture Parallels with Conventional Wealth Building?
When I read through the permaculture principles I can see how each of them applies to personal finance.Here are just a few examples –
When I think about two basic conventional wealth building concepts…
1) Hold onto your wealth (don’t squander it)
2) Put your assets to work for you earning more wealth
… I see those same permaculture principles in action along with using and valuing renewable resources and services. If we make the right regenerative investments we too can turn our financial capital into a renewable energy of sorts.
Those asset classes that Mollison originally outlined in chapter fourteen of the Designers” Manual are key to helping us do that. Once we comprehend the distinctions between degenerative, generative, procreative, conservation, and informational assets we can get to work avoiding the assets that deplete our finances and eco-systems and prioritizing those that produce abundance for our wallets and communities without further harming people or planet.
Just like conventionally wealthy people we can put assets to work to create more wealth. It’s just that the assets we are going to emphasize are regenerative and along with securing our own financial stability we’ll be directing the wealth on to others to ensure theirs as well.
Spreading the Permaculture Wealth
I’ve seen a fourth permaculture ethic mentioned in several spaces known as the ethic of transition. This ethic is a nod to the fact that we are pursuing our permaculture lifestyles within a larger, very imperfect world. We are all going to interact with that world and its systems to some extent so we’ll have to manage as best we can during this time of transition to a better alternative.
My approach within the realm of personal finance is to harness the relevant and more neutral tools of the current system to help evolve that better one. For example, I’m pursuing social justice investing (not philanthropy), using my investing dollars to address systemic racism. That type of involvement with money may or may not sit well with you. We’re all walking different permaculture paths.
One thing I’ve noticed when it comes to dealing with money at the individual level in permaculture is that we focus a great deal on frugality and spending less, but we’ve put very little emphasis on earning more, optimizing the wealth we do possess, and building financial abundance for ourselves and our communities.I’m a big proponent of tapping non-monetary ways to meet our needs, but I’m guessing most of us accessing the internet to read this article likely live in a place where somebody has to pay taxes on the property on which you reside. And if you live in the U.S. you may want some sort of a financial safety net given our healthcare and retirement realities here. And as I’ve mentioned before, when we access more financial capital we can distribute the surplus in regenerative ways.
Getting to a place of financial security gives a person agency and autonomy and keeps us from being beholden to a significant other, toxic family member, or employer. This is especially important for women, because in general we earn less, invest less, and have less money to fund our retirement years (which last longer since we live longer on average).
With the social and climate challenges that await society there will be ample opportunities for permaculturalists to earn money addressing those challenges and doing things they enjoy. If you’re finding yourself inclined towards entrepreneurship, but not sure what exactly you want to do check out the Permaculture Women’s pay what feels right Find Your Eco-Niche course. Gaia University’s free Regenerative Livelihood by Design course is another resource to help you get started. If you already have your business up and running, but need guidance and support to make it more regenerative or profitable then Karryn Olson of Regenepreneurs is here to help you.
If you long to increase your financial literacy or confidence in managing money by working with people who share your sustainable and regenerative values and can help you apply a more expansive view of true wealth to your life, I offer the following suggestions:
- The permaculture infused financial resilience courses for women at Shakti Rising.
- This pre-recorded Permaculture for Life, Money, Business and Society course that I co-taught with Mike Hoag is available in the store at TransformativeAdventures.org.
- 1:1 Resilient & Regenerative Wealth coaching with yours truly.
When I tell people about how I’m investing my money outside of the stock market, building holistic wealth, and increasing my resilience and connection to community I hear responses such as “that’s what I want,” “that’s such a refreshing and unique approach,” or “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” These responses reinforce my determination to keep opening people’s minds to the possibilities of how we can use money to emerge the regenerative culture which we all so desire.