HERE WE ASK whether you would prefer to participate in a Permaculture Australia email-based conversation space. But first, to context the idea in permaculture history, Russ Grayson takes us on digital whirlwind historic tour of Permaculture Australia’s previous excursion into the world of email communication below…


IN THE LATTER MONTHS of the year 2001, thirty or so people gathered at Robyn Francis’ Djanbung Gardens permaculture education centre at Nimbin. The gathering followed up the meeting of a year before that was called to ask ‘where now?’ following the cessation of publication of the Permaculture International Journal (PIJ).
The Journal had finally called it quits after struggling financially through the closing years of the 1990s. Launched by Melbourne permaculture pioneer, Terry White, the Journal had networked the permaculture movement since 1978. Without the Journal, how would the national permaculture network communicate and pass on information? Remember — this was before the coming of social media.

Spring in Nimbin

The 1991 gathering set the course for the development of APT — Accredited Permaculture Training — and this became the focus for Permaculture International Limited (now Permaculture Australia) over the following years.
Sitting in the shade of the verandah awning of the mudbrick education centre at Djanbung Gardens, imbibing the rural, humid subtropical ambience redolent of the surrounding bush, serenaded by the clucking of distant chickens and watchful of the (sometimes savage) geese patrolling nearby, we realised that PIL needed to maintain contact with its members now that the PIJ had become permaculture history.
Although lulled by the close, warm ambience of the place, during an afternoon’s desultory conversation we decided to publish a print newsletter and we decided that on my return to Sydney I would set up an email discussion group. The newsletter was called The Planet and it ran for several years.
On my return I spoke with Cameron Little at UNSW Ecoliving Centre to establish what became the Permaculture Oceania email discussion list. The list served the permaculture milieu for years and over that time it carried conversations that, had they not been lost, would have been of historic interest to the permaculture movement.

A email… what?

Let’s start by realising that those years were in the distant, dark times before we had social media. Facebook didn’t exist as a publicly-accessible networking media.
Permaculture’s digital landscape was void other than for the small number who had set up the early permaculture-related websites. That happened in the latter years of the decade, the first easily useable website browser, Mosaic, having appeared only in 1993.
Email had been around for some years, picking up usage at an increasing rate in the 1990s. The first email message, however, had been sent between university researchers in the 1970s. It was ‘Lo…’ — the system crashed as one of the researchers had started to key in ‘Log on’. Further development was clearly needed, and it came.
The development of email lists was quickly adopted as a means of getting information from a single source to many, but they soon became many-to-many conversation spaces.
Unlike the early websites that were read-only (Web 1.0), email was read/write — participants on discussion lists could initiate and respond to mail, creating a conversation. In the absence of the Permaculture International Journal, this held promise in linking the disparate and distant nodes on the national permaculture network.

A brief incursion into email lists

Here’s the main points about email discussion lists:

  • a list uses what is known as ‘listserv’ software
  • people apply to join the list
  • a list needs guidelines about useage
  • the list requires someone to manage it (to delete spam, physhing, trolls etc)
  • the email lists are public conversations accessible by all on the list; emails go to everyone on the list as do all responses; it is many-to-many communications
  • email discussion lists don’t carry photographs or video, only text.

Email lists were social media before what we now understand social media came to be (just as the Whole Earth Catalog had been a type of print-based networking tool before the Internet was invented… just as had been the Sydney-based networking media of the Australian Association of Sustainable Communities in the 1980s, before email came into widespread use).

Out first online meeting place

In those not really so-distant times, email discussions were common and were the bees knees when it came to digital networking.
There were some quite involved conversations on Permaculture International Ltd’s Permaculture Oceania email space. Conversations would go back and forth among participants for some time, until they were talked out. They were allowed to run their course. There wasn’t always agreement, that seems the nature of permaculture thanks to the diversity if its participants, but there was civility. That counted for much.
Eventually, the university project folded and Permaculture Oceania was at risk of being lost. At the time, Tim Winton (and here), who lived in the Byron Bay region of the NSW North Coast and who was on the PIL board of directors, moved the list to the Brisbane server of the company hosting the PIL website.
So it went for a time, until the company ceased providing the email service and unilaterally deleted the list and the great and varied conversation that had taken place over the years. Permaculture Oceania ceased and its records were lost. The company didn’t notify PIL that this was to happen.

The conversation now

Now, the permaculture conversation takes place on social media but here it is a fragmented conversation, unlike what Permaculture Oceania had been. On social media the conversation is spread across numerous permaculture Facebooks — fragmentation is an effect of social media. One of those fragments is the Permaculture Australia Facebook.
Permaculture on social media is more accessible than ever but the conversation that takes place there is soon lost as posts move rapidly down the timeline. And the posts, too, are not of the depth or continuity as were those on the old email distribution list. They happen over a short period of time before they slide down the Facebook timeline, usually to be lost to view or, as they used to say in the newspaper industry — disappear below the fold.
That is how social media works and that is one of the reasons that Permaculture Australia set up forums and discussion groups for its members on the Buddypress social media part of its website. There, conversations are retained and remain accessible well after they end. It is a pity that this function of the website is not better used by members (you have to be a Permaculture Australia member to access it) as it offers a lot to a discipline, like permaculture, that other social media is simply too fleeting to provide.

And, so, to now

The (perhaps surprising to some) reality is that not everyone makes use of social media and few members access the organisation’s own social media on its website. That’s what makes an idea coming from last year’s informal survey of Permaculture Australia members interesting.
Then, respondents disclosed the fact that some would prefer to be in contact with Permaculture Australia and each other via… an email discussion network. And so history turns, not repeating, exactly, but spiralling over the same territory at a higher level. As Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat itself. But it does rhyme.”
That is why the idea is being taken seriously and is the topic of a poll of Permaculture Australia members. If there is sufficient interest, Permaculture Australia will consider setting up an email discussion group as a communications option.
First, though, we need to know what you think of this idea. We would like to hear your thoughts:

Would you make use of a Permaculture Australia email discussion list?

Let’s know… if there is demand and opportunity then we should seize it.

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