May 13, 2020
The divide between the haves and the have nots has been highlighted by the impacts of the pandemic. For those able to work online with a spacious and secure home base, and some financial resources to ride out the pandemic, life has mostly been tolerable. Consumption has continued online with delivery to the door. For the better-off with both town and country residences, a seamless relocation to rural locales has provided breathing space and often a greater degree of self-reliance.
The frontline action of medical professionals has been lauded by the politicians and the community alike. This awareness and appreciation has extended from the relatively well remunerated doctors to the more numerous nurses and even the previously invisible cleaners and orderlies even more essential than ever in an economy where cleaning is a major activity.
This focus on medical workers has spilled over to some degree to the farm workers, truck drivers, supermarket workers, rubbish collectors, and the myriad of others who are keeping the more essential parts of the system working. The fact that these workers are paid the least, often need to work with exposure to the virus, and often have little union protection and advocacy has also been highlighted.
The experience of home schooling has also raised the status of teachers and childcare workers, both through what they have to put up with and the precious experience of being engaged with children’s growth and learning.
For those isolated at home in apartments without outside space, let alone those with insecure tenure or crowded in shared accommodation with others similarly exposed through their work, the pressures and risks are much greater. Anger from people in this latter situation towards those better off is likely to fuel increasing class tensions as the fear of the virus declines but the lived experience of the Second Great Depression drags on for years. Satire remains one of the creative outlets for this anger.
Many can see that we are long overdue for a major reallocation of risk and reward from the bloated financial services sector, and the top echelons of most sectors, to the folks most of us really depend on. In Australia, we have seen neoliberal governments implement something not too distant from a Universal Basic Income and heap so much praise on our medical and care professionals that it may be politically impossible to return to the past pattern of attempting to squeeze ever more efficiency out of the workers in an overstretched health system. The pandemic has highlighted how different Australia is from the USA where dysfunctional health systems, massive disparity of wealth, terrible underlying disease and morbidity burdens, welfare for the rich, bloated military budgets to maintain the global empire, and political elites at war with each other have failed the people worse than most third world nations.
So can a permaculture perspective add insight and a model of adaptive change in the context of the current crisis? I believe applying permaculture ethics and design principles to how we live can reduce our vulnerabilities to shocks from whatever quarter, without doing so by hoarding society’s wealth and privilege to the disadvantage of others and while simultaneously radically reducing our ecological impact. In the process we can model a “fair share” society that can operate within ecological limits.
Firstly, an anecdote from my youth. At the age of 16 in 1971 I remember discussing with a very close friend how our relationship that seemed so deep in shared understandings and lived experience was not buttressed by interdependence and exchange around material needs. I contrasted this situation with people who ran the power stations and collected the garbage and other essential service workers who we didn’t know or care about in any meaningful way, other than our parents paying the power bills and council rates. I attribute this social justice insight to my family upbringing, which I later combined with my own exploration of an ecological understanding of society to inform a life lived according to permaculture ethics and design principles.
Early on in that journey of exploration I came to realise that our closest intellectual, emotional and sexual relationships needed to be supported by an intimate reciprocity of exchange that cannot be found in monetary economy. In rebuilding the household and community non-monetary economies of barter, reciprocity, gift and love, we generate the interpersonal glue that can guide us through the roller coaster of ideas, emotions and infatuations that constantly disrupt and destroy our most precious relationships.
In this postmodern rediscovery of the ecological, economic and political utility of traditional values and wisdom, some might think I am a born-again conservative abandoning the ecological anarchism of my youth. I see it as part of a deep evolution of my radical roots to build a new (perma)culture in the shadow of an obsolete one. One of the ethical conundrums of this multigenerational task is how to parasitise that obsolete system to support growth of the new system, while not being a parasite on ordinary folk who still have faith in, and are largely depend on, that system. I use the term “parasite” without the usual connotation, because I understand that parasites are essential lifeforms that help regulate ecological communities and redistribute resources. In the 1980s, I knew and respected some who accepted the dole as society’s (unacknowledged) subsidy of their frugal experiments in rural homesteading and permaculture, even though my preference for autonomy prevented me from accepting that subsidy.
I have lived a good and fortunate life while reducing ecological impact, including demand for services funded by the taxpayer or provided by globalised capitalism. I have done this by investing in personal, household and community resilience to shocks from whatever quarter. My partnership with Su Dennett over nearly four decades has been the most important reinforcement in this shared journey.
I remain intensely aware of the nation state, ethnic and cultural privileges that underpin this personal achievement. Ongoing contradictions and ethical dilemmas raise questions about being part of a barely recognised privileged elite, that I believe has a responsibility to give back and pay forward in novel ways and provide leadership to chart new paths to ecological and social harmony.
Over most of my life, I felt a disconnect between being privileged in having options and agency in the world and yet living below the official poverty line without the backup of family wealth. I understood that most people living at or below the poverty line have few choices and limited personal resources. Most even lacked the skills of poverty to “make do”, which was characteristic of previous generations of working poor. Two generations later, addictive behaviours and dysfunction have magnified the problems.
I retain respect for people who are somehow coping with kids home from school in apartments, queuing at Moles or Bullies for their food, jumping through endless bureaucratic hoops to meet their needs, dealing with debt, or a range of health dependencies and disabilities and, most significantly, a huge confusing range of emotions as the certainties in their world shrink.
I also cannot avoid a distaste for those who have done so well through timely investments creaming the best from globalised capitalism with no sense of obligation to society, other than creating jobs for others through their consumption and investment. That distaste intensifies for those who have simultaneously hedged with bets against the system, including rural properties for negative gearing – and as a self-reliance bolthole in case the system really goes pear shaped.
It is this lack of faith that so many of the current elite have in the system that tells us it is rotten at its core. Of course, lack of faith in the system is fundamental to the world view of the new unrecognised leaders. The difference is that we have attempted to live and communicate “open source” solutions to any and all who are interested, while the old elites continue preaching undying faith in “economic growth” to save the masses from chaos. This corruption is already unleashing reaction and rage as populations realise they have been sold defective goods while the spruikers have hoarded cash to fund plans to jump off the sinking ship.
Obviously these are not black and white values or groups of people. There is an overlap between those with capacity to choose one’s own path, and those who responded to society’s carrots and sticks and were amply rewarded. Growing recognition for ideas whose time has come, and sometimes greater financial security, shifts our experience from alienation to feeling the warm glow from respect and reward that in turn generates contradictions and ethical dilemmas. Over the decades, I have observed how creative entrepreneurs and activists are lured back into decadent institutions that have lost the capacity to generate leadership from within. And national/ethnic privilege and fortunate personal circumstances do continue to generate creative and ethical leadership from some of those born into established elites.
Similarly, those following a path of voluntary frugality and dissident leadership are vulnerable to some risks as great as those faced by the true battlers at bottom of the social ladder. For example, being targeted by the old elites as a threat to the system can manifest in ways ranging from subtle exclusion and prejudice to legal sanctions and, in more extreme situations, incarceration and torture. The case of Julian Assange is a clear warning not only to journalists but to any dissident that might be an existential threat to elite power. It always seems that the articulators and leaders of the emerging culture walk on a knife edge between the corrupting rewards of the system and being tipped into the abyss of failure, ridicule and even martyrdom.
In creating our own economy through household provision and self-employment funded by clients and students making similar choices, Su Dennett and I have simultaneously reduced our contribution to this system through tax (tax minimisation by minimising monetary income) and dependence on systems of infrastructure, education, health, law and other services that are available to citizens generally. We are intensely aware of how being citizens of one of the richest countries in the world provides myriad forms of insurance and backups to our experiments in autonomy. However over the decades, I can honestly say that our demand from those systems has been some tiny fraction of Australian middleclass norms. I am also sure that our dependencies are fewer than those at the bottom of the system who, for better (or worse), are dependent on education, health, welfare, work and access to cheap energy and what passes as food delivered by our market economy backed by the welfare state.
By not needing fulltime work in the monetary economy and creating our own employment, we believe we leave opportunities for others who need work. By not commuting, we leave the roads and public transport clearer for others. By birthing at home, healthy living and a dose of scepticism about mainstream medicine, we leave system resources available to those in need. By attempting to resolve conflicts directly, we reduce the load on council officers, the legal system and police to deal with more substantial issues. By having a tested stay and defend bushfire plan, we free up the resources available to help those not able to do so. By living and doing business from savings rather than debt, we reduce our own, as well as systemic, vulnerabilities to financial contagions. By printing our books in Australia rather than China and denying Amazon access to, let alone control of, our book marketing, we do our bit to stop feeding the monster of corporate globalisation. By sharing our property, we extend household economies and capacities to help others make similar transitions.
Brenna Quinlan’s encapsulation of the downshifting path to a resilient future from RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future.
I have articulated this life as a quiet boycott of an unsustainable system that beguiles the population with its seductions and addictions while increasingly exploiting those at the bottom as it trashes our precious earth and hands a cargo of adverse consequences to future generations.
In contrast to some other forms of revolutionary activism, this modest strike of our labour, consumption and investment is designed to allow us to live a better life now, and provide a model for others able and interested in doing the same, while freeing resources for those most dependent on current centralised systems.
Like all research and development, some of our designs and investments have given no financial reward. For example growing our own food year after year, minimising our rubbish and building a passive solar house have not reaped the financial rewards from being hedged against expensive food, waste disposal and energy that I expected to hit “the lucky country” as early as the 1990s. Being an early adopter of grid feedback rooftop power was not as profitable for us as those who waited for the prices to drop. When Victoria temporarily lost it gas supply in 1998, I experienced a moment of schadenfreude in response to the crisis of lack of hot showers. Back when gas was still being touted by environmentalists as a clean alternative to coal fired electricity, I would gently tell people on tours of Melliodora that our wood fired cooking and hot water produced less than 1/10th greenhouse gas emissions of cheap, but depleting, Bass Strait gas and that using gas to heat water and air was stealing our grandchildren’s high quality transport fuels for the frugal futures they would face. Despite the spruiking of the green technology optimists, those frugal futures are surely unfolding in some form or another.
So it is no surprise that the pandemic, which required us to cancel our property tours and courses, has been a relatively minor hiccup for our business. And for us, household isolation has not been that much of a change to our three decades of home-based lifestyle at Melliodora, with as many extra upsides as downsides. In contrast, even folks with incomes several-fold of ours, find themselves dependent on social welfare directly or indirectly as they struggle to implement imposed home schooling, and go cold turkey from their multiple habits of commuting, consumption and social interactions in the market place. After decades of acting steadfastly against this system of addictive consumption, exploitation and destruction that I articulated in “The Apology: from the baby boomers to the handicapped generations”, it’s hard not to gloat at the “Second Great Depression of the 2020s”, “predicted” in the most charming and empowering way through my story “Aussie St: a permaculture soap opera in 4 acts, 1955 to 2025” (also told in Chapter 2 of RetroSuburbia).
Despite the worldwide impact of the pandemic, it is hard to imagine a more benign interruption to the planet-killing Ponzi scheme called the global economy. Almost all other scenarios we have considered and hedged against over the decades, from localised bushfire disaster to global financial collapse let alone nuclear war, involve far more “collateral” damage and less learning for change than this pandemic and the consequent necessary shutdown of the non-essential economy.
The global nature of the pandemic that has most dramatically impacted the hyperconnected cities of the rich countries, especially the Anglo-American centres of empire, has ensured that those normally insulated from natural and man-made disasters (mostly happening in poor countries) are impacted and consequently engaged. The fact that many poor countries have responded better than many rich ones, has eroded the hubris of the so-called developed world about our assumed superiority. Household isolation has highlighted the poverty of individual and minimalist household living arrangements, promoted through the global economy, compared with extended family and shared households that were the norm of our forebears. That same isolation has triggered large numbers of people to kick start the retrofitting of their own household economies. Many took the opportunity to rapidly consolidate their households with family, friends and visitors to at least get a taste of the real power and resilience of larger shared household non-monetary economies.
Most dramatically, the zombie-like commitment to maintaining a system of underused homes and unnecessary work spaces, despite the current communications technology, has been broken. It hasn’t all been roses, but it has provided an alternative vision for our human habitats that doesn’t require the mad cargo cult of infrastructure and building construction that has dominated the public discourse about urban development for half a century.
While we and other colleagues in the permaculture and kindred movements have been doing some combination of modelling and teaching about the many ways to live better with less, it has remained an option that, until the pandemic, most people had little inkling of or interest in. The current explosion of interest in home-based self-reliance, like previous waves of interest over the decades, is countercyclical to the faith and fortune in mainstream economic values and options. But the intensity of this downturn has acted as a slap in the face for many people dozing in the comfortable cocoon of consumer capitalism.
Over the decades, the elites in the current system (whether by Machiavellian conspiracy or self-organising complexity) ensured that these solutions were perceived by the majority as hard work and hair shirt puritanism – if not hippy nonsense sending us all back to the caves. The systemic intelligence built into the current economy recognises these non-monetary household and community economies as an existential threat to corporate and central government power.
The desperate attempts to reboot the centralised monetary economies controlled by corporations and feeding government coffers, are likely to be accompanied by calls for people to renew discretionary consumption as a social obligation to provide for the wellbeing of their fellow Australians.
However this time around, I think the propaganda will be less effective at suppressing the good news of people kick starting their household and community non-monetary economies. The more of us who stay at home, get the garden cranking, take in a boarder and make connections in the neighbourhood, the more chance we have of using the pandemic-induced Depression to build the new economy in the shadow of the old. We can do this while taking full advantage of our historically unique capacity to be inspired by, learn from and trade with those further afield in local and global networks. The internet could be the pinnacle project of global industrial civilisation that may, or may not, survive the long energy descent transition to re-localised and re-ruralised economies and cultures, but for however long it lasts, we can use it to build the new. Doing so may be the finest example of parasitising the global system without parasitising the people.
Of course, the internet and communications technologies are a digital vortex that constantly threatens to suck us into the matrix of a virtual existence, on cloud servers, dependent on passwords and flooding us with electromagnetic pollution. How to use the power of technology to support what we do in unmediated connection with people and nature is perhaps the greatest challenge for those of us on this side of the digital divide. Those on the other side are still subject to the strictures of virtual existence but without the sense of agency that so many of us feel connecting to our network communities.
One of our tasks in building stronger households and communities is to recognise that some of us have heads in the clouds with large antennae harvesting the virtual world, while others have feet on the ground and are content with fewer but more real relationships with others. The hyperconnected can inform those on the ground, while our grounded household members are our anchors stopping us floating or being blasted away by the fickle and foul winds of the online world. Like other relationships in any robust and resilient household and community ecosystem, this ambiguous complementarity between the connected and the grounded may provide a resolution to the digital divide by internalising it in our households and communities. In an extended retrosuburban household, this design pattern might be expressed by one adult out working in the monetary economy and available online, another working part time from home at the desk, balanced by work in the garden and kitchen, while another might have a craft home business with limited online engagement, and another might be focused on children and animals with little or no online identity. The household children might be shielded from the online reality until they have a fully formed identity (around age 10 or thereabouts). In this way, information technology could be our servant rather than our master as we navigate the post-pandemic world.
So as we build our retrosuburban resilience to face the successive unfolding crisis of the brown tech future (defined by rapid on set of climate change and relatively slow decline of net energy supply), the strictures of life in the system will become ever more difficult, being maintained more by fear of the risks outside the system than its enticing benefits. Living outside of this corporate and government controlled system will be challenging but empowering, as we increasingly have to rely on our personal and collective resources while access to the benefits of the system is being reduced. For example, without making any judgement about the merits of the case, access to school education will be dependent on full compliance with vaccination recommendations while access to (rationed food) at Moles and Bullies might be dependent on personal ID and tracking apps installed on mobile phones. For those unwilling to comply, feeding ourselves in the fringe food economies of farmers markets, co-ops, grow your own and foraging will be the only options.