…and why permaculture must adapt to their world

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Story and photos by Russ Grayson, February 2016

IT WAS GOOD to have someone unexpected opening Australasian Permaculture Convergence 13 (APC13) as keynote speaker. That’s because she provided a much-needed perspective for permaculture practitioners and because it addressed past comments about the ‘same old’ keynote speakers at convergence after convergence. Annie Macbeth was not one of the ‘same old’. She was different.
A middle aged woman with short red hair and wearing a bright yellow jacket, Annie described her life to those assembled in the big hall at the Swan Valley Adventure Centre where APC13 was held on the Perth outskirts.
“I’m a futurist, a consultant”, she said. “I look for patterns. I look for what we see and don’t see. I look at social and political trends around the world. Futurism is value-driven. It is not materialist”.
Futurism is one of those new professions that have appeared as citizens, business and government grapple with the challenge of making sense of, and finding their way, in a rapidly-changing world. It is perhaps in Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, Future Shock, that the profession of futurist can find its origins. That was the time when computerisation started to change society and working life, when the neoliberal model of capitalism started its ascendency and when young people took to the hills as the ‘back to the land‘ or ‘alternative’ movement that, in Australia, involved tens of thousands. It is also the time when permaculture first appeared in the form of the book, Permaculture One (followed around a year later by Permaculture Two). In recent times the practice of futurism has seen a wealth of books and websites published, including the 2016 book, The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly, who was founding editor of Wired magazine, who was hired by Stewart Brand to edit the Whole Earth Catalog in 1983 and who started the Cool Tools website, a sort-of online successor to the Whole Earth Catalog.
Annie said that she still lives her ‘hippie values‘. Such a statement might seem odd to some at a permaculture convergence, however global trends are stimulating many of that generation — (in Australia, many refer to themselves as having been ‘alternatives’ rather than hippies) — to revisit those values because as well as an inward-looking focus, for many they were about building a better society and a better world. As that, those values Annie referred to have parallels with permaculture’s ethics. The appearance of books like Margaret Nash’s Rebellious Aging attest to this return to past values to address the present times.
Annie’s comments about the pace of technological change and how emerging generations are different to those that went before are relevant to permaculture educators and practitioners because permaculture is a multi-generational phenomena. Understanding the differences will determine how relevant the design system is perceived to be by younger generations and how it must change to better fit newer priorities and ways of life. During her talk it became evident that Annie has high regard for permaculture.

Change creates fear, people look backwards

To speak of the rapid pace of change today is nothing surprising. We live immersed within it. We try to cope with the disruption to yesterday’s institutions, beliefs and values that it leaves in its wake.
“The rapid pace of change creates fear”, Annie explained. “It impacts on personal life and overwhealms. Because of this, people look to the past and we see a gap between those who are fearful of the future and those who like change”.
Looking to the past is not an alien practice in permaculture. How often do we see comments on permaculture’s social media extolling the value of some past technology or harking back to some past lifestyle? Good things are to be found there, however all too often what is not mentioned is the lack of opportunity, the diseases then without cure, the lack of personal mobility and an unfamiliarity with the world.
Past lifestyles were not all home pickling and bottling, tending the chooks and vege patch. Poverty was as pervasive as it is today, the religious brand you were born into could be a determinant of opportunities open to you, and a university education was the province of the well-off. The middle class was smaller, meaning that fewer were affluent. The industrial working class was large. The parents’ social class usually delineated the opportunities available to their children. A good point, though, was that housing was affordable.

The technological driver

“Technology drives change”, Annie asserted. It accelerates trends.
Yet, despite its disruption technology offers solutions. Technology in the form of mobile telecommunications is now of value in alleviating developing country poverty. Cheap mobile phones enable farmers to monitor prices for produce and to sell at the best time. The internet connects people to the world and in so doing exposes them to useful information and knowledge of what happens elsewhere. That latter point has much to do with why paranoid regimes that are fearful of change block social media and many websites. Now, a growing number of people with access to electricity and telecommunications networks can access the world even though they might live in a village.
In the technologically developed parts of the world, technology has changed how we work. That will be clear to those whose working life began before computing started to change the economy in the seventies. Computerisation created new types of jobs at the same time it automated others out of existence. The question now is whether it will continue to do so. Although it destroys, technology creates new ways of working, such as co-working venues, makerspaces with their computer numerically-controlled machines and platform cooperativism (and here), online platforms structured as cooperatives that are owned and democratically controlled by employees, customers and users.
“Technology has no inherent value”, Annie said. Neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, it enables people to live in some virtual world because, in some situations, that world is better than the real world. It also blends those worlds. Augmented reality on a mobile device, she said as an example of emerging technology,  blends big data and the real world by adding an augmenting layer of information to the world before our eyes.
The economic system is no longer sustainable, Annie said in positing permaculture as of value because of its focus on sharing and working together. This leads to the question of how platform cooperativism could be used to create an economy around permaculture that benefits practitioners and creates a sustainable economic base and livelihoods in permaculture.

A new leader generation

“It used to be that government looked after people. The job was the most meaningful thing in life. That’s now gone”, Annie told the audience.
This is the reality faced by the generations that are now shaping social trends and assuming leadership roles in society. It also affects many born into the baby boomer generation who are choosing to continue working so as to make ends meet. Many cannot afford retirement. This creates difficulties for newer generations, said Annie.
Annie spoke of ‘Generation Z’, the demographic cohort following the Millennials or, as they are also known, Generation Y. There are no precise dates for when this cohort started, although demographers use mid-1990s to early-2000s as birth years for the generation. Whereas the baby boomer generation, which was the first permaculture generation, it that gave birth to the design system, was once the most populous, Generation Z is now more numerous with two billion entering the workforce in 2015, according to Annie. This generation is driven by morals and a sense of justice, she said, in explaining that this comes from their global online connectivity.
“They have access to other people’s realities and this leads to an understanding of the world. They listen less to media reports and have more direct contact.”
At the same time, suicide and social problems co-exist within this generation. This might be attributable to a despair-without-hope that their world will improve and to the dissonance between the limitlessness of the online world and what they pick up in school and experience in life.
For this generation, said Annie, loyalty to institutions is a concept without sense. This will only be reinforced with the increasing casualisation of working life and the income insecurity of part-time, project and contract work as well as by the impact of workplace automation as robotic systems and software replace even middle class workers, as we already see happening. Loyalty to employer has no place in such a shifting working life. Jobs will be short term stopovers and people will likely have several careers through life.
Generation Z lives in the moment. Unlike previous generations they can operate on more than one channel at the same time, as we see when they are listening to someone while clicking at their mobile phones. This generation is collaborative and connected, Annie said.
It is also the generation that will inherit the permaculture design system, and I deduct from Annie’s talk that the design system, like everything else in society, will have to adapt to retain its relevance.

A changing climate

Annie addressed more in her presentation.
Water will be the challenge in our changing global climate, she believes. Climate change is impacting with “unexpected severity and is speeding-up.” Weather patterns are moving south and extreme events intensifying.
“Nature won’t adapt in time with the rate of change”, she warned. Because of this, ecosystems are changing as species of plant and animal migrate out and others migrate in.
Perhaps this is where permaculture will prove of value. Permaculture mixes species in recombinant ecologies. Through revegetation, permaculture practitioners could create a deliberately designed ‘new nature’ adaptable to changing climatic conditions. While some, especially those engaged in restoration ecology seek to hold ecosystems in some kind of statis denoted by existing species mixes in existing ecosystems, permaculture, by cooperating with a changing nature, could explore new ecosystems adapted to changing climatic realities. Although Annie did not say so, large-scale revegetation of the type proposed by some permaculture practitioners and educators would be a form of geoengineering with potential to affect regional weather and climate.
Annie also warned about the use of statistics. Citing Einstein’s comment that the things that matter most can’t be counted, she warned us to check sources, to “peel the layers back” and find who packages them when it comes to numbers. Sage advise for a time of claim and counterclaim, dubious marketing practices, fake news and ‘alternative facts’ otherwise known as lies.

Upgrading permaculture

Annie’s work as a futurist well-places her to point to emerging trends in society, economy and ecology that are reshaping the world-we-once-knew. With this information in mind when the recurring discussions around permaculture education, organisational structure and the other conversations resurface, we can perhaps adapt our ideas around permaculture to include the trends she identifies.
I was surprised to find a futurist leading the convergence’s keynote speaker list. It was timely, though, because Annie’s was knowledge coming into permaculture from outside. All too often, people in organisations resist change and new ideas, especially if those ideas contradict existing beliefs. People within organisations and systems of belief and practice can form echo chambers in which acceptable ideas are bounced back and forth and challenging ideas excluded and ridiculed. That didn’t happen with Annie. The audience was appreciative of her insights.
There’s a long-lived meme purported to originate with a North American indigenous tribe (though I don’t know if that is true) that proposes we think ahead seven generations when planning something. I think seven generations is a time span too hard for many to envisage. Instead, I suggest we focus on a timeline easier to imagine and plan for the world likely to be inhabited by our grandchildren. I should point out that for many of the baby boomer generation, this is what motivates their social, environmental and permaculture work.
That world is the one that Generation Z will inherit. And just as the world many of us inhabit today is substantially different to that of our youth — it is substantially different to the world we inhabited only 35 or so years ago when permaculture first appeared — so will the world of Generation Z be substantially different to our contemporary world. This suggests detailed planning to be rather pointless. What we in permaculture might do best is work to build that resilient world in which Generation Z can achieve a modest prosperity.


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