“As we face what seem like insurmountable challenges, or what design theorist Horst Rittel
described as ‘wicked problems’, it’s easy to sink into despair and anxiety about the future.
Naomi Klein has said, ‘we’re f#*ked if we believe we’re f#*ked’. I’ve been so grateful to
Rowe Morrow for introducing me to permaculture in 2006 – the year my twin boys turned five
and I sank into despair about the future.”
This months guest post is written by PA professional member Lis Bastian in the Blue Mountains. Lis is involved a range of different projects including The Big Fix, Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute and the Blackheath Community Garden. She was also recently awarded a Community Service Award at the Australasian Permaculture Convergence for exemplary service to permaculture. Read more about her story below.
“Fifteen years later, the solutions-focused system design thinking approach of permaculture has enabled me to get a handle on tackling wicked problems and helped me focus on hope, not despair. Two of the three permaculture ethics are about People care and Fair share, so my main focus has been on the cultural change side of ‘perma – culture’. This has been a natural fit as permaculture designing has merged with the arts and cultural development work I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.
I do this via a charity I founded called The Big Fix, which incorporates the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute. Our mission is to ‘change the story to grow a collaborative solutions-focused culture’.
The Big Fix has six areas of focus for redesigning our culture. They address how we
collaborate, tell our stories, learn, work, connect and care for the living systems which
- Facilitate Collaboration. Tackle wicked problems like climate change & biodiversity
loss by avoiding social monocultures and growing cross-sector collaborations and alliances
- Change the Culture by Changing the Story. Recognize that our artists and storytellers are our nitrogen-fixing species to accelerate succession. Work with them to bring back media ownership to communities and for hyperlocal and bioregional solutions media to feed up into global solutions media – a bottom up approach.
- Encourage Pluriversal Learning. Create community-owned and operated intergenerational and cross-cultural learning and research opportunities that meet the needs of young people and our communities.
- Create New Economies. Provide training and support the development of social enterprises that put the needs of all living things ahead of profit.
- Grow the Health of our Communities. Provide public spaces and regular events that focus on what we all have in common – helping us to meet our needs for food security, social connection, creativity, physical activity and time outdoors reconnecting to the natural (versus online) world.
- Involve Everyone in Redesigning our Systems through an Ecological Lens. Ensure ‘fair share’, social equity, inclusiveness and accessibility by expanding opportunities for free and adaptive permaculture design training, knowledge sharing and participation in community decision making.
On a practical level, we’ve implemented the above six areas by:
- Working with local cross-sector Alliances
- Producing The Big Fix Media – Australia’s first solutions media service
- Trialling Australia’s first Pluriversity
- Providing social enterprise design, development and mentoring as a new thread in permaculture training
- Coordinating Blackheath Community Farm and Landcare
- The Permaculture Garden and Micro-forest for Headspace, Katoomba; and
- A new micro-farm being planned for the Lithgow PCYC
- Providing free permaculture for young people in a range of settings through the Blue Mountains Pluriversity and its Permaculture Institute.
THE JOURNEY: A HISTORY IN THE ARTS AND MAKING THE MOVE OUT OF SYDNEY TO ORANGE
I trained and worked as an art teacher at a number of schools in Sydney and then, thirty-four years ago, left my job as an Education Officer at the Art Gallery of NSW to take up the role of curator at Orange Regional Gallery. I was a keen whitewater canoeist who escaped the city nearly every weekend to spend time in the bush. My former partner and I had the dream of buying a farm and leaving the city permanently. The job in Orange helped that dream become a reality. We purchased 80 acres and I began gardening and experimenting with cooking the seasonal food I grew myself. This eventually led to me opening one of Australia’s first bookshop cafes and becoming a food writer for a local paper.
After 3 ½ years I left the Gallery, expanded my work as an exhibiting artist and writer, ran the Bookshop Café, taught Art at TAFE, and became the Regional Arts Promotion Officer for Arts OutWest – a regional cultural development organisation servicing 17 Local Government areas in Central NSW. This involved arts reporting for Prime TV, ABC Radio and a number of other commercial radio programs and newspapers. I eventually closed the Café, became CEO of Arts OutWest, started a magazine called ArtSpeak, launched the Central West Writers’ Centre and ran the Banjo Paterson Festival in Orange.
RELOCATING TO THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
Just after our twin boys turned one, we moved to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. We opened a gallery called Stop Laughing This Is Serious, which specialised in the best of Australia’s cartooning and illustration. At this stage a number of people who frequented the gallery, persuaded me of the seriousness of climate change. I subsequently applied to train as a climate ambassador with Al Gore, who’d produced ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. It changed the whole direction of my life. I went on to give over 120 presentations about climate change around Australia and worked with our local community to start a Climate Action Group in Blackheath.
POLITICAL ACTION AND PERMACULTURE AS A RESPONSE TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS
In my search for solutions to the climate crisis I heard about permaculture and enrolled in a PDC with Rowe Morrow. She subsequently invited me to start teaching with her and we set up the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute in 2007. I was attracted to permaculture because it was about redesigning systems and looking at everything we do through an ecological lens. I loved the focus on People care and Fair share (as well as Earth care), and the concept of the problem being the solution. At the same time I was working closely with Catherine Fitzpatrick, an inspiring climate
strategist from Greenpeace (who went on to work for Greenpeace in China). She kept reminding me that our current situation is so urgent that individual action alone will never produce the change we need in time to avert catastrophic climate change. We need political change as well.
Our Climate Action Group began exploring how we could build fair share and resilience into our local community. Our projects included starting a community market with a Kids Toy Swap Table (run by kids), and a local produce co-op with our own seed company: Crazy Climate Seeds (if they could grow in Blackheath they could grow anywhere). We did bulk buys of solar panels and hazelnut trees, selling over 400 of each and creating a distributed hazelnut orchard through the Blue Mountains; and my husband and I produced a booklet: 101 Cool and Green Things to do in Blackheath, financed by the Blackheath Chamber of Commerce and Blue Mountains City Council.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND BIOREGIONAL SOLUTIONS
I became one of Australia’s first Climate Adaptation Officers at Centroc (the Central West Regional Organisation of Councils). After being briefed by the Department of Agriculture and others about future climate predictions for Central NSW, I wrote a speculative fiction story about living in Central NSW in 20 years’ time, imagining we’d ‘permacultured’ the region. I then worked my way back from the story to identify the steps that needed to be taken to get there. These steps became the basis of a 103-page Regional Resilience Strategy Options Paper for Central NSW. It was very well received by all the Mayors and General Managers because it took a practical win/win approach to meeting their communities’ needs.
THE GENESIS OF THE BIG FIX: RECOGNISING STORYTELLERS AS THE NITROGEN
FIXING SPECIES THAT CAN ACCELERATE SUCCESSION
The most important observation I made during this time was that there was a huge gap between what the media said government believed, and what local governments were actually doing to address climate change – which was a lot! I realised that the reason we weren’t making the progress we should be making, was that mainstream, top-down, for-profit media was controlling the story. I realised that the problem needed to be the solution, so I moved on to take on the challenge of redesigning the way media could operate in our world.
Our Blackheath Climate Action Group morphed into the charity The Big Fix. Our mission became to ‘change the story to grow a collaborative, solutions-focused culture’. We started The Big Fix Solutions Media in 2007 (Australia’s first Solutions Media service), sharing solutions stories from every sector around the world. We wanted to inspire people to action, to keep hope alive, to grow collaboration and to accelerate change by sharing knowledge and thereby reducing the need to reinvent the wheel.
In 2017, Muhamad Yunus identified that the eight richest people in the world owned as much as four billion of the world’s poorest. They also controlled most of the world’s media. To regenerate our social desert, hyperlocal storytellers can give us the nutrients we need to grow bigger and stronger – they can ‘fix nitrogen’ and inspire collaboration between the many grassroots movements to create a mycelial network. This then can generate a healthier and more biodiverse forest from the bottom up.
THE BIG FIX: MEDIA
In 2016, informed by the knowledge and experience I’d gained working in all sectors, I began to work full time on The Big Fix. I started a ‘Youth Café’ weekly drop-in space for young people in Blackheath and we ran a campaign against single-use plastic that resulted in Blackheath becoming the first town in the world where all the businesses agreed to phase out plastic straws. This became the lead story of our first Solutions Magazine which was distributed to every household in the upper Blue Mountains. We partnered with the Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre to ensure
their voice, and the voice of the community, continued to be heard, despite funding cuts. We now also run a monthly hyperlocal print news service for Blackheath which is funded by a different individual, community group, organisation or business every month.
THE BIG FIX: BLACKHEATH COMMUNITY FARM AND BLUE MOUNTAINS BLURIVERSITY
In 2017 we started Blackheath Community Farm to create a public space to grow community and food, and to build a bank of locally acclimatised seed. We meet every Sunday and whoever works at the Farm takes a share of the produce. We’ve also created a Landcare group to regenerate the Zone V bushland around the Farm. In 2018 we launched the Blue Mountains Pluriversity, providing community-owned and generated learning opportunities for young people to meet their needs and the needs of their communities. We began teaching a new type of PDC – free Permaculture and Social Enterprise Design Courses in which young people worked on designing and implementing land-based projects
as well as designing and implementing social enterprises that could provide them with an income as well as meeting the needs of their communities.
We’ve just finished a free course at Headspace in Katoomba which resulted in the design and construction of a Permaculture Garden at the site. It’s providing a safe outdoor, nature based gathering and event space for young people where Headspace practitioners can provide ‘incidental counselling’. It features a micro-forest of nearly 200 natives that emerged after the fires at Mount Tomah (these were donated to us by the Botanic Garden). The wider community rallied around and donated the other materials needed to help young people build this space in the heart of the CBD.
THE BIG FIX: THE LITHGOW SPRINT
In 2019, Western Sydney University invited us to be part of a community consultation to help reimagine Lithgow to enact the Sustainable Development Goals in a regional city. The WSU campus in Lithgow will now become Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra (Wiradjuri for ‘Workmanship Together, Side by Side’) – The Lithgow Transformation Hub. To support a ‘just transition’ in Lithgow we launched a solutions storytelling site called The Lithgow Sprint, in honour of Marjorie Jackson the Olympic runner who lived in Lithgow. Our goal is to change the story for Lithgow quickly. In April 2021, the Pluriversity will teach the first course on the campus – a free Permaculture and Social Enterprise Design Course. We’ll work with young people to design and build a micro-farm around the PCYC in Lithgow and mentor them to design social enterprises.
THROW THE BEST PARTY!
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learnt over the last 40 years is that the best way to influence opinion and encourage change is not to nag and pressure, but to throw the best party so that people want to join you!