“Don’t wait for that country block to start practicing permaculture”: Ben Habib on applying permaculture principles to daily life.

Dr. Benjamin Habib is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. Ben is an internationally published scholar with a current research interest in intersections between grassroots sustainability and regeneration projects, North Korean security, climate politics and environmental movements.  In June 2014, Ben completed a Permaculture Design Course at CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne and teaches into the CERES PDC program on social permaculture and economic regeneration, focusing on the application of permaculture design principles to socio-economic systems.  He also engages publicly in the areas of international relations, environmentalism and sustainability, and mental health.

We asked Ben about his permaculture experience and how it has informed his life, research and future outlook.

Are you doing any gardening at the moment?

I live in an apartment, a living arrangement that is dominant across the megacities of the world.  Many of the suburban-based solutions popularised in permaculture circles in Australia are not suitable for people living in these high-density high-rise communities, nor is the option of leaving the city and moving to rural areas.  We know large cities are problematic from a hard sustainability perspective, but that’s where a large chunk of the global population lives.

While I make no grand claims to expertise as a high-rise green thumb, I’ve got two gardening projects in motion with that urban living challenge in mind.  First, in my balcony garden I’m trying to develop the right balance of perennial plant ecosystem and productive annual cropping in that tight space, inspired by balcony gardens I’ve seen in South Korea, China, Portugal and India.

Second, I’ve been experimenting with indoor plants in my apartment and in my office.  I’ve developed an office “forest” at work, which improves the air quality of the room and makes it more pleasant place to be as a work space and as a safe space to have deep discussions with colleagues and students.  It took a lot of trial and error (and advice from my friends at the CERES nursery) to find the right plants for the office, which has a south-facing window and zero humidity, not a very hospitable environment for plant life!  

What are your early memories of permaculture ideas or gardening more generally?

Growing up as a kid in Adelaide, I was lucky to have two sets of grandparents from migrant backgrounds who kept incredible food-producing gardens.  My maternal grandparents grew up as peasant farmers in western Ukraine in the 1920s, surviving Soviet collectivisation and imprisonment in Nazi Germany as forced labourers before migrating to Australia following World War Two.  Their entire backyard was filled with vegetable crops and fruit trees, including bountiful harvests of potatoes, cabbages and onions.  Looking back, their garden reflected their farming roots and their experiences of extreme insecurity, or “gardening when it counts” Steve Solomon’s book title.

My paternal grandfather came from a large Lebanese immigrant family and his garden was filled with Mediterranean fruit and veg, including tomatoes, broad beans, chillies and loquat trees.  My grandfather and his brothers and cousins would have annual competitions to see who could grow the biggest tomatoes, and at every family dinner he’d have a side plate of smoking hot chillies to eat with his meal.

Looking back, it was this time in my childhood, playing and free-ranging through my grandparents’ gardens, that planted the seeds of my current interest in permaculture.

So how did this interest in gardening transition into an interest in permaculture?

I first heard about permaculture in 1999 through a guy called Tony Maney down in Mount Gambier, whose daughter I was dating at the time.  Tony explained the basic premises of permaculture, which I remember resonating strongly with the environmental politics of the hardcore punk music I was into back then.  I didn’t give it much thought for another fifteen years until I found permaculture for myself, but Tony’s introduction to the concept always stuck.

I decided to complete the PDC at CERES in 2014.  We’d just been through an organisational restructure at my university, the second in three years.  The chaos and dysfunctionality of my workplace at that time primed me to look for alternatives to the toxicity of large institutions, and I happened to be on research sabbatical, so I had some time and space to take the PDC.  The PDC was a transformative journey.  Graeme George was my first permaculture mentor (I don’t know if he knows this!), his knowledge and experience blew my mind.  In permaculture I found the method that I’d been searching for to put my environmental politics into practice, and I met some incredible people in the process.  It felt like coming home.

How do you conceptualise permaculture? Is this within a specifically Australian context?

I came to permaculture from a professional background in international relations, which itself is a form of pattern language for interpreting systems and relationships at international scales.  I think this has shaped my approach to permaculture and my specific interest in applying permaculture principles to social, organisational, governance and economic systems.  In particular, I’m fascinated by the application of the zoning concept to “social” permaculture zones and see this as a powerful tool for figuring out how people relate to place, and how they interact with larger networks and flows simultaneously across different scales.

There are many amazing permies with great expertise in food systems, sustainable technologies, social relationship-building, and community-level organisation.  My contribution to permaculture lies in locating this body of work and practice within larger transnational systems.  Global political realities and the prevailing capitalist economic system is an unfertile soil in which the permaculture movement has attempted to seed sustainable food systems and communities.  I’m interested in how permies around the world are composting that political, economic and cultural “soil” for permaculture to transition from an alternative model to standard practice.

There’s so much that we can learn from the common elements and unique experiences of our fellow travellers around the world about how to combine permaculture with political and economic action.  In South Korea for example, where I have spent a lot of time for my academic research, their modern organic agriculture movement evolved in response to the Park Chung Hee dictatorship and Park’s extreme “green revolution” agricultural policies in the 1970s.  From this emerged a thriving organic agriculture scene based around the town of Hongdong-myeon, which Bill Mollison visited in the 1980s, and an organisation called Hansalim, which is the world’s largest organic food cooperative.  Or, to butcher a Mollison-ism, within the problem lies the seed of the solution.

Where can the average citizen see the socio-economic side of permaculture in action in their community?

Permaculture has influenced many different organised collective approaches to socio-economic alternatives in Australia, including multifunctional community hubs like CERES, the Transition Network, intentional communities, eco-villages and co-housing, time banking and alternative currencies, the cooperative movement, the voluntary simplicity movement, and the food sovereignty movement (including community gardens, street harvesting, food coops, community-supported agriculture etc).  What all of these approaches have in common is that they are organised collective initiatives that take sustainability practice beyond individual action, and that they have systemic effects in changing relationships of production, consumption and exchange.  There’s also the permaculture work that isn’t so visible, where people are applying the permaculture ethics and principles to themselves, in their homes, and in their workplaces and organisations.

At this stage though, these initiatives are still small-scale and often restricted to people who are able to “choose” simplicity.  While I agree with David Holmgren’s argument that the global middle class has an obligation to reduce its eco-footprint, there is also a clear niche that permaculture could fill in low socio-economic status and regional communities, as well as doing more in allied collaboration with Indigenous mobs and migrant communities.  Operationalising the “people care” and “fair share” ethics is hard when we look beyond the garden to the socio-economic systems that shape our lives, but that’s the difficult work we need to do to fertilise the soil for sustainable and just communities.  It’s easy to say that you believe in the three ethics, but it’s a lot harder to live them consistently.  I think we need to be honest about that, be kind to ourselves through our critical self-reflection, then do the work.

Your battle with anxiety has been widely publicised since 2016, what sorts of mechanisms have you adopted to mitigate some of its harms? Has the widespread public engagement and support impacted you in any way?

My notorious TV panic attack brought to the surface my long-standing struggle with anxiety, but for me it also forced me to reflect on the all the different things in my life that might have contributed to my anxiety.  And when I first started fronting up to this it was overwhelming, I didn’t know where to start.

Recently I’ve come to see the social permaculture zones as a pattern language to understand my relationship to the complex matrix of my anxiety triggers and, more importantly, help me figure out what to do about them.  This is especially important for the issues beyond my immediate control.

I’d briefly summarise this framework like this, drawing loosely on Looby Macnamara’s social permaculture zones…

  • Zone 00 (self): Personality tendencies; trauma history; stage of life; exercise, diet and physical health.
  • Zone 0 (household): Co-habitation relationships (spouse/partner, children, roommates etc); residential dwelling; financial stress.
  • Zone 1 (family): Parental relationships; sibling relationships; extended family relationships; inherited trauma; family history and ancestral issues; genetic predisposition to anxiety.
  • Zone 2+3 (neighbourhood and community): Workplace stress; school bullying; friendship networks; neighbours; socio-economic context; local ecological environment; social media; social capital of community.
  • Zone 4 (national): Employment market; industrial relations; political under-representation; corruption; toxic masculine culture; ongoing impacts of colonialism; bigotry; environmental mismanagement.
  • Zone 5 (global): Global economy; war; climate and ecological crisis.

What I’d discovered over time through treatment regimens is that institutional support tends to individualise responsibility for mental health problems.  That might be OK for addressing some of the triggers in Zones 00, 0 and 1, but that is not a helpful response to the environmental factors that contribute to poor mental health that you’d find in Zones 2-5.

The further we zoom out from Zone 00, the more people are necessarily involved the more complex the forms of collective organisation required to meaningfully address the problem.  And as we focus back in from Zone 5 to Zone 00, we see that the larger systemic forces shape everything underneath them.  Or to put it another way, individualising treatment for mental health problems is self-defeating if we don’t address the larger systemic problems that directly manifest the toxic environment that makes people sick.

For someone who doesn’t have the time or space to fully incorporate permaculture into their life, what would you say to them?

Permaculture is much more than just gardening. Whatever you’re doing can benefit from permaculture thinking.  And don’t wait for that country block to start practicing permaculture.  Wherever you are right now is the right place.

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