I’m stoked to have found this great video from the folks behind Australia’s National Permaculture Day, happening this year on May 6th. One of the things that I think is powerful about Permaculture is that it takes a hands-on and solution oriented approach to global challenges and encourages folks to do what they can, where they are, with what they have. Creating a national day of independent but linked local events is a great organizing strategy – very similar to the strategy that Occupy movements around the world are using to organize May Day 2012 events just a few days earlier, on May 1. It may be a coincidence that these two events happen so close to each other, but I don’t think it has to be.
I often find myself feeling like I straddle two worlds that don’t seem to cross one another very often: one as a Permaculture acitivist, and one as a social justice activist. I struggle with this divide, because I feel that there is such a natural fit with these two worlds. That’s why I’m cross-posting this article on both of my blogs, which isn’t something I’ve done before. My hope is that my Permaculture community and my rad political community will start to cross pollinate through whatever conversation arises from it. In my experience it’s so rare for these two communities to ever cross; many folks on both sides seem to feel that they don’t need the other. I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.
I consider myself a radical, and to me that means that my activism is about getting down to the roots of the problems that we face, curing the dis-ease instead of just abating the symptoms piece by piece. This involves a willingness to bravely confront the reality of just how fundamental to the dominant culture the destruction of our world is, and how deep a change in our everyday living we need to be willing to commit to in order to shift it. I love my radical community because it is the most inspiring and empowering thing I have ever experienced to be surrounded by people willing to look at how scary the state of the world is, and do the work that’s called for in spite of fears and obstacles. Fierce hearts and the courage to follow them are the hallmarks of radicals.
I want to see that same spirit of unflinching willingness to commit to fundamental change – social, as well as ecological – be something that Permaculturalists take up as well. I want to say to Permaculture people that the ecological crisis we are facing has social roots. It’s a direct result of the culture, the economic system, the political system, that dominate on this planet right now, and until there is fundamental change in that culture, that economy, those politics, the ecological crisis will only continue to worsen. If we really want to move the world toward Permanent Culture, it behooves us to make this reality central to our work, no matter how scary it is, and put our work in solidarity with the struggles of communities who are at the margins of the dominant culture. I say this not out of some sense of charity toward the “less fortunate,” but for the very pragmatic reason that those margins also happen to be the front lines of the battle to contain the cancer that is industrial capitalism and the ecological destruction that comes with it.
When I see a video like the one above, I feel both excited and frustrated. The message is so uplifting and inspiring, which is important for helping folks feel that they are powerful enough to make the changes they want to see in their communities. And also, it shows a romanticized ideal of Permaculturalists creating a utopic new world without the need to confront the existing system in a direct way. It’s a vision that seems to assume that people have access to land, the ability and time to garden, and a whole host of other things that folks in many communities don’t have – how, then, are those folks supposed to see themselves in the vision that this video is putting forward? Will National Permaculture Day events offer solidarity to help overcome those barriers, or just leave it up to the people trapped behind the barriers to deal with them? Nothing in the video gives us a clue as to what the answers to those questions might be. The video also frustrates me because it only shows (apparently) white people actively engaging in Permaculture, while using images of people of colour to represent the passive “poor” and to frame the challenges of global poverty and environmental destruction that set the context for the video in the first few seconds.
The imagery and the text of those first few seconds seem to show water overuse, desertification, and global food insecurity as if they are politically-neutral states of existence, forces of nature that don’t have causes and consequences, that aren’t being inflicted on some people by some other people. I find it all too common in Permaculture for us to address the facts of the global ecological crisis without acknowledging how it got to be that way and how and why different communities are affected differently by it. The placement of relatively affluent white people as active while people of colour are “poor” and passive, coupled with the lack of politicized language around the facts of the ecological crisis, contribute to the invisibility of the social roots of the crises we face, roots that are stuck in the contaminated soil of colonization, racism, and domination. This matters because those same social factors continue every day to deepend the ecological crisis, but they go on behind a curtain of obfuscation because many people don’t want to hear about them, don’t want to acknowledge or engage in conflict with dominant assumptions, structures, and cultural norms. I find it all particularly sad in a video that comes from a country much like the one I live in, whose land was stolen from Indigenous folks whose faces and voices are absent from this message. In fact, many indigenous peoples are fighting hard in Australia to stop the depradations of industrial resource exploitation from destroying their lands and lives.
This oversight is certainly not because the makers of this video or the organizers of National Permaculture Day are setting out to be racist, or classist, or to exclude people. I know they work hard and have the best of intentions. Rather, it’s the logical outcome of the sadly common invisibility of race and class issues within Permaculture as a movement. It’s also a result of the idea that “the environment” is an issue that’s separate from politics, economics, or social issues, a legacy of the mainstream environmental movement that Permaculture has yet to actively shed in many places. This is also perfectly understandable. Many people don’t want to look at the political reality of how the ecological crisis arose, they don’t want to place themselves in conflict with the dominant culture of which they are a part. What’s important to realize, though, is that many people don’t have the choice of whether or not to engage, because the conflict is in their backyards. Contributing to the invisibility and depoliticization of the ecological crisis helps to silence and take power from those peoples’ struggles and hence from our own chances of collective survival. It’s all the same ship, after all, and if there’s a hole in one part of it, we’re all going to go down.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t spread this video around (please do!), or engage in National Permaculture Day activities. What it does mean is that we need to understand how Permaculture is linked to the direct struggles of people around the world for environmental justice. We can ask ourselves, what little things can we do in all of our communications and our actions to make sure that we are acting in solidarity with peoples’ struggles, and not contributing to the erasure and invisibility of their voices and issues? It may seem like a small thing to put a race and class lens on how you produce a video, or to change the wording of how you present the facts to take away their value-neutral sugary coating, but isn’t a big part of Permaculture to see how we can make the least change for the greatest effect in any situation? Radical social analysis has a huge wealth of both ideas and strategies for action to contribute to how Permaculture activists do just that.
What I love most about my Permaculture community is the willingness to roll up our sleeves and do what we can, right now, to make changes in our daily lives to become more in line with earth systems. I often wish that my radical activist community would get its hands in the dirt a little more, get a little closer to the earth and to each other and to what brings us joy in the way that Permies do so well. We can look unflinchingly into the scary truth and cut the dis-ease of industrial civilization out at its root, and do our earth healing work in a way that honours that truth and the struggles that arise because of it. MayDay for gardens and meaningful work, instead of earth-destroying mines and jobs to prop up capitalism? Permaculture Day for environmental justice and solidarity with indigenous peoples? Let’s throw out the either/or and turn this into a both/and. Because if we try to do one without the other, I’m pretty sure we’ll fail at both.