Small and Slow Solutions
Waking in the early hours of the morning, the music of rural India pocks the morning soundscape: a chorus of warbling birds from the tall grasses of a nearby lake; the crackle of a wood fire heating metal buckets of water for morning baths; and the splash of that warm water scooped from a bucket, poured over the body, and then crashing down upon the concrete slab floor of a bamboo-sheeted outdoor shower.
The press of cold nights and hot days carries the day's emergent theme: permaculture's relationship to societal institutions. The morning begins via Skype with David Holmgren. From his home office in Hepburn Springs, Victoria, Australia, David presents perspectives from his forthcoming book Retro Suburbia: The Downshifter's Guide To A Resilient Future.
The premise of his talk is: "Creating the World We Want In An Era of Failing Activism." David's argument begins with this eponymous statement—a loaded assessment of the past few decades of the "diminishing returns" of social and environmental activism.
Asserting a need to "use the capacity of global networks to assist bottom-up movements and strategies," David emphasizes the limitations of "shouting louder from a position of weakness," which he presents as the current and longstanding trend in activism.
Comparing this to permaculture solutions that "build a degree of autonomy," he emphasizes that "when we do these things [regenerative designs and behaviors], we are effectively engaging in a systemic strike." This so-called strike is an effort both to assert a baseline ethic and valuation on the small scale, and to undermine the stronghold of corporate influence over a consumption-driven society.
Systemic striking, or stepping out of consumerism and removing our skills and talents from an undesirable system, offers emulatable strategies for everyday living that emphasize an ethic and culture poised to appeal beyond the strike's initiators: the global middle class.
"If successful and relevant to other people," David says, "the capacity to replicate [leads to] a learning cycle" that fosters an adaptive process allowing for continuity and effectiveness through new and differentiated conditions—economic and otherwise.
A question is raised by a student: Is systemic striking by the middle class enough to protect "the great biodiversity we are losing" when we fail to support the rights of indigenous people across the world? How does divestment work for the benefit of long-oppressed communities who face state-sanctioned violence and other destabilizing forces? David asserts the need for strategic disturbance to prevent—or mitigate—the overarching trajectory of collapse. Still, the question hangs in the air like an exhalation of cold breath on a frozen December morning in North Dakota. (As the permaculture community itself continues to learn how to decolonize its own design process and thinking, questions like these remain a universal challenge.)
Furthering the argument for divestment, David goes on to claim it an illusion to believe we "need a majority of people for change to be considered significant." Using the example of large chain supermarkets where 95% or higher—or "almost total dependence"—is required to operate at a viable level of scale, a minority change in consumer habits can have powerful impacts at just 5-10% of the market. In other words, if 5-10% of the consumer base divests from shopping at a certain corporate store, this has the potential to disrupt the baseline functioning of that operation enough to effectively undermine its model. We can locate additional examples in governmental systems, such as sewage treatment plants, which require a baseline level of consumer water use to ensure proper functioning.
This is all to argue that majority politics is not critical to revolutions in the stability or instability of our institutions. Tipping points may be reached—or effected—by the minority.
The argument for bottom-up, creative design solutions as an alternative to failing global systems centers around the household as model. "We should be the guinea pigs of our own ideas... robust, working prototypes building a way of operating—a model or pattern—for larger structural change." We should ask, "what are the effective patterns of household resilience?"
In this way, permaculture stands as a form of traditionalist creativity-driven anarchism: a decentralized mobilization of small but numerous activities with shared ethics and principles. The examples we create may be "threatening to centralized power, but are not threatening to other people." In this way we build solidarity as a people and culture, while fostering the collapse of unsustainable institutions.
Focusing further on the people at the center of these actions—and our individual lives—David addresses the need to balance permaculture generalism with the "pathways for security of livelihood" provided by specialization. "We all need to be able to have a skill that is useful to another person," he says.
The looming inevitably of human suffering shadows a discussion about how we begin to build parallel systems and ways of operating to replace our present peak economies. Despite our current trajectory, there is tremendous hope in the approach offered by permaculture and other forms of systems thinking. This emerges time and again—through the day and other presentations—emphasizing the potential for synchronicity between the permaculture approach and scientific research, the drive toward global connectivity via a decentralized permaculture network (CoLab), and the present-day successes of ecovillage development as a strategy for rebuilding displaced and disenfranchised human communities.
The questions that hang in the air will likely remain for some time, punctuated by the realities of human-induced ecological degradation. It is our pursuit of these questions that will define the process and tempo as we edge closer to a position of "creating the world we do want [through that which] makes us more self-reliant and resilient."