ON NOVEMBER 20, 2021, a controversy erupted in the Australian permaculture network. The controversy continues to unfold as I write. This article should therefore be read as a snapshot of a continuing conversation as it stands in early December.
In the interests of clarifying the issue I want to use the design thinking that should be present in permaculture to look at how the issue unfolded and what it might mean for the reputation and work of people active in permaculture. To do this I use the ORID method of strategic questioning, a process that looks at facts and feelings, asks what they mean and what to do about it.
ORID consists of four strategic questions:
Objective (O) — what are the facts as they are now understood
Reflective (R) — how do people feel about the topic
Interpretive (I) — what does it mean? what are its likely impacts?
Decisional (D) — what do we do about it?
The ORID process has been used in a range of settings spanning community group decision making to business. My partner, Fiona, and I learned it from the Institute for Cultural Affairs. Fiona used it in her community and resilience education work in local government. I have used it in teaching adults.
Let’s get started…
Objective questions: what happened?
The key question is: what do we know about this?
O questions identify objective facts relevant to the topic. This is where we list the main events and their timeline. No analysis or expression of personal feelings is during this phase.
What happened? Here is the timeline as I understand it.
It started with permaculture co-founder, David Holmgren and his partner, Su Dennett, participating in the November 20 rally in Melbourne against the proposed Victorian government legislation on pandemic emergencies and Covid19 vaccine mandates, including requirements for worker vaccination in certain industries. They were at the rally of the following Saturday.
A photo of the two at the rally was taken by Meg Ulman or someone in her family or a friend, and posted to their artistasfamily Instagram. Meg is employed by Holmgren Design Services to do communications, publicity and administration. The photo showed David and Su carrying a large banner reading ‘Permaculture-local solutions to global problems’. A subsequent two photos showing the banner at the rally of 27 November, attributed to Reignite Democracy, were reposted to a November 27 article by David Holmgren on holmgren.com.au
The first photo was reposted to the Retrosuburbia facebook by another permaculture practitioner. From there it spread rapidly through the Australian permaculture network. The Retrosuburbia facebook is closely linked to David Holmgren’s 2018 book of the same name.
By Sunday morning a controversy was underway around the facebook photo of David and Su and their presence representing permaculture at the rally. It revolved around several Covid19 related issues, responses to the pandemic and the couple’s presence where elements of the far-right were also present and had been present at previous rallies.
Through Sunday, a back-and-forth conversation about David’s presence followed on the Retrosuburbia facebook group. Most of the posts were civil in tone and expressed disappointment and dismay at his presence. I had already seen from monitoring social media that within Australia’s permaculture milieu there was polarisation around responses to the pandemic and to the medical science forming the basis of government, organisational, medical and personal responses to it. One prominent woman associated with permaculture has posted a stream of disinformation about the virus and measures taken against it as well as political material from the One Nation party and the United Australia Party, both serial disinformation sources and rightwing fringe dwellers.
It happened that the Retrosuburbia admin was absent from her/his computer the day the controversy broke out. Discovering the now-lengthy conversation, he/she chose to delete it in its entirety along with its hundreds of comments. This merely added to the existing controversy by introducing the issue of censorship in permaculture and deletion of its public, historic record. As the conversation moved into the Sunday afternoon of November 21 it became evident that the sympathy of some for David’s presence at the rally and for disinformation around the pandemic signified the existence of a substantive polarisation of attitudes within the social movement around permaculture.
On Sunday afternoon, someone responded by opening an alternative permaculture facebook group — Evidence-Based Permaculture. The idea seems to be to provide a science and evidence-based space for rational discussion of the design system and its ideas. A conversation got underway as people tried to make sense of the couple’s presence at the rally, David’s earlier blog post explaining why he chooses to avoid vaccination, deletion of the conversation by the Retrosuburbia admins and David’s apparent disregard for medical science and its processses.
By early evening a post appeared and a conversation started calling on the Retrosuburbia facebook calling on the admins to reinstate the deleted conversation. This, too, was deleted when the admins posted a notice saying that only Retrosuburbia-related topics were to be discused on the site and those posting off-topic would be removed from the group. Discussion of the actions of the author of the Retrosuburbia book, upon which the facebook is based and who is the co-founder of the permaculture design system, and the politics of the issue, were now taboo.
It became clear that people were feeling disenfranchised and alienated by the deletion of the Retrosuburbia conversation. Membership of the Evidence Based Permaculture facebook group grew rapidly, reaching 150 members by Monday, the day after the conversation and its deletion from the public record. That does not include visitors to the site. The number quickly more than doubled.
Witnessing the ructions coming from permaculture’s main spokesperson’s attendance of the rally, I put together a summary of the incident to clarify it and posted it to a number of Australian permaculture facebook groups, including Permaculture Australia’s (see below). A conversation started. Then an admin switched off comments. That may have been because a woman, who is also one of the site admins, made an aggressive and accusatory ad hominen attack on me and accused me of criticising David, which was not what I did in posting a backgrounder for people’s information. By the morning of Wednesday November 24, the post had been deleted by the Permaculture Australia admins.
The controversy continued through the following week. On November 26, the long-running Australian magazine, Meanjin, a literary and commentary publication (an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing), published an article about permaculture and the far-right. Headlined A Problematic Convergence: Permaculture and the Far-Right, author Dr Racheal Goldlust, Adjunct at the School of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University, writes of “a convergence in Australia of the traditional left at the anti-lockdown, vaccine mandate protests with a broad-based alt-right agenda, the largest congregation of which happened over the past weekend across the major capitals.” She goes on to say: “From within the permaculture movement, the alignment or at the very least, proximity with the far right has also proven to be problematic. Some comments on high-traffic social media posts have challenged the basis of the leaders to continue to speak for the movement, while others have asserted that ‘people care’ [one of permaculture’s three ethics] has been transmuted into a form of libertarian hyper individualism.”
On November 27 David published another piece on his website. Describing how his parents—who, like he, opposed Australian participation in the war in Vietnam — influenced his oppositional stance on environmental and other issues. David launched into media bashing and claimed his non-presence at previous rallies had “nothing to do with fear of being associated with so-called right-wing extremists–or even actual right-wing extremists”, but about “risks to my 66-year-old body.”
Now, the conversation spread to the Permaculture Emergency Response Group facebook.
David and others with him at the November 26 rally with their permaculture banner handed out bookmarks, presumably for his Retrosuburbia book. David wrote that many would see that as the “crass commercial promotion of our products to troubled people searching for answers.” That is exactly what happened.
On November 29, a post appeared on the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook with a link to veteran permaculture educator and practitioner, Geoff Lawton’s ambiguous post of 23 November proclaiming: “Immunity is one of the many health benefits of a permaculture lifestyle”. Geoff did not mention the Covid19 virus, however in the context of the conversation going on within permaculture at the time his comment was taken as referring to Covid19. Once again, people expressed their disappointment at the post of a prominent person in permaculture.
By this time, respected veteran parmaculture educator and international refugee worker, Rosemary Morrow, had posted a piece in favour of vaccination. So did the well-known Tasmanian permaculture educator and designer, Hannah Moloney of Good Life Permaculture as well as the Bradleys who run Milkwood Permaculture. Rick Coleman of Southern Cross Permaculture also came out in support of vaccination and in opposition to David’s action.
On November 31, the issue resurfaced on the Retrosuburbia facebook. Perhaps taking cognisance of the negative feedback their deletion of the earlier post had aroused, they did not close comments or delete the conversation. This is their statement:
“Hi everybody. Yes the admins are aware of this post. Thank you to all the people who have commented. We know what a heated, polarising topic this is and we would like to be able to support the debate that we all need to have. We are most grateful that the comments have been (mostly) respectful. If you’d like to comment on the original article, you can do so here: https://holmgren.com.au/.../pandemic-brooding-brown-tech.../“.
As the first day of the southern summer rolled around, December 1, the conversation continued as people tried to make sense of the incident and what to do about it. It continued through the week.
On December 5, artistasfamily, the Hepburn-based permaculture family who posted the photo of David and Su at the November 20 rally in Melbourne, posted a defence of the rally and the participation of permaculture in it, in which they respond to their critics. They make much of Aboriginal participation. Aboriginal people are like any other group in society. Their communities are home to a range of opinion and belief, so their appearance at the rallies shouldn’t come as a surprise. You could say the same for any national group there.
artistasfamily denies claims made about the far-right role in the rallies, yet repeats the common rightwing attacks on the ABC, Nine Entertainment and The Guardian and indulges in the kind of media bashing we are used to seeing coming from the right and the anti-vaccination and conspiracy camp. They leave unidentified the media they get their information from. Nonetheless, the message comes across that the media is to blame.
They also criticise the “establishment left” for abandoning the working class and go on to say that the corporations producing the Covid vaccines are “known corporate criminals”, another rightwing meme. Then they say that it is mainly old people and those with health vulnerabilities who die from Covid. Maybe I have to watch their video again, but the impression I and the person watching with me came away with was that this didn’t matter all that much.
At the end of the first week of December the conversation was still alive.
A side note—the far right
Concern about the role of the far-right in the rallies against vaccination and other Covid19 related measures has become a trigger for both mainstream and fringe politics in Australia. Measures to reduce the spread of the virus have been seized upon by small but vocal and assertive rightist formations as a means of recruiting people and as a tactic in their process of ‘accerationism’, of stimulating social division and distrust to destabilise democratic societies. Given the publicity around their presence at previous rallies and their engaging in violence against police, it is understandable that organisations and individuals participating in the rallies, like David and permaculture, are seen as supporting their agenda whether or not that is true, in something like guilt by association. This is what happened.
Some of us who have been around permaculture awhile and some who know David publicly stated that David, and probably the other permaculture people who marched as individuals rather than representing permaculture, are not fascists and may not identify with the far-right, however the link with fascism seems to have stuck.
Authoritative sources in the police, and analysts who monitor the activities of the far-right, have stated publicly that they have been infiltrating organisations opposing Covid mandates and in violence at previous rallies.
The rise of the far-right is of growing concern. Coincidentally in the days around the rally, a far-right extremist was arrested for making threats to kill Victorian premier Dan Andrews and the prime minister. The photo of a woman carring a model of a gallows at a previous rally against the Victorian government and Covid measures caused widespread alarm about the presence of extremists in the rallies. The arrested man was alledged to have posted online a large volume of extremist content that urged violence against people for their race, occupation or political viewpoints. Around the same time the federal government declared the white supremacist group, The Base, and Lebanese militant organisation Hezbollah to be terrorist organisations, making it a criminal offence to be a member or to offer support. Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, disclosed that right-wing extremists now account for one-third of its investigations.
Following the arrest of a far-right activist, The Age reported that “The criminal charges are among several cases brought quietly by Victoria Police’s counter-terrorism command security investigation unit and come amid growing evidence that neo-Nazi extremists have infiltrated the Victorian anti-pandemic-law protest movement.” The presence of the far right was reported by the White Rose Society: “At a recent anti-vaccine rally in Melbourne, observers identified supporters of the Ustaše, a Croatian fascist movement with Nazi-collaborationist roots. It’s no fluke: the radical right is attaching itself to the anti-vaccine movement everywhere.” The presence of the far-right at the rallies and their role in organising them became one of the main points in permaculture activist’s consternation at the permaculture presence at the rallies.
Reflective questions: how do people feel about the incident?
The deleted conversation on the Retrosuburbia facebook disclosed a range of feeling about David’s attendance at the rally under the permaculture banner. Many supported his presence, some were ambiguous about it and many opposed it because the banner clearly identified a permaculture presence and implicated permaculture as a supporter of the various demands. The conversation demonstrated how people felt betrayed by David’s presence. David does not represent permaculture opinion in general, only that of his own supporters, some wrote.
I should point out that the great majority at the rally were not from the far-right, although it was present and as it has been present in an organising and agent provoceteur capacity at previous rallies. Some were people fearful of losing their jobs with the exclusion of the unvaccinated from some areas of work and from city venues. Others opposed the idea of vaccine passports and the projected Victorian legislation for declaring emergencies (amended in parliament at the end of November and supported to by civil liberites, legal watchdogs and minority parties with the most socially obnoxious provisions removed; the legislation was voted in in early December) Opposition to the covid vaccination and a range of other Covid-amelioration measures introduced by government and employers also figured. Still others were simply frustrated by the months of lockdown they had endured.
With the Retrosuburbia and Permaculture Australia conversations no longer in existence all that there is now is memory to estimate the feeling for and against David’s presence at the rally that were expressed there.
Interpretive questions: what does the information coming from the objective and reflective questions suggest? Why does it matter?
The key question of the interpretive phase is this: what does David’s participating in the rally under a banner clearly identifying that permaculture was supporting the rallies mean for the permaculture design system in Australia and public perceptions of it? Why does this sudden rift within the Australian permaculture movement matter?
Let’s look at how participants in the deleted conversation on the Retrosuburbia facebook and its continuation on the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook, and more recently the revived conversation on Retrosuburbia see why it matters for the future reputation and direction of permaculture in Australia.
Perception of permaculture and its political stance
Do perceptions matter? Yes, they do because they influence how people seeing the photo of David and Su with their banner might think about permaculture and its place on the political spectrum. To state it mildly, the critical reaction of some in permaculture to the couple’s presence at the rally clearly indicates that their perception was negative. Many of them suddenly felt alienated from permaculture.
I learned of the importance of considering public perception when I was starting out in journalism, when the editor of a major city newspaper told me that for some things what matters for what people believe is not the truth but peoples’ perception of it. He said that it is how people perceive something that influences their attitude to it, their beliefs about it, the meanings they read into it and what they do about it. The influence of thought leaders plays a big role in this. Perception continues to play a big role in the ongoing permaculture conversation.
We are talking about the public representation of permaculture and who it plays to. Why does the couple’s presence at the rally matter in this regard? It is because David participated not as a private individual but as representing permaculture. That mattered, some commentators said. It was all-too-clear with the large banner they carried. Their presence offered inadvertent support for the far-right agenda, some said, a claim that has permeated the conversation on different facebook groups.
Was it alarming that one permaculture voice on the deleted conversation said she was happy that the rally attracted more people than the anti-fascist counter-demonstration? Maybe we should consider the political implications of the comment and what it says about the political savvy of permaculture practitioners. Tropes emanating from the hard-right have been made by supporters of the permaculture presence at the rallies, such as alleging Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, is untrustworthy despite the broad respect it is held in. David has also engaged in the media bashing and scapegoating associated with the right.
The association some have made between David’s presence at the rally and the far-right’s role in the rallies has bearing on how people think about permaculture’s political stance. It also confronts the many who considered permaculture to be non-political or politically non-aligned. That was always an erroceous preception because permaculture’s critique of the political economy’s status quo was a political stance although not a party-political stance. Now, the couple’s presence with their banner perceptually aligns permaculture with the mixed agendas of those at the rally. Permaculture is now politicised. That opens it to the analysis and back-and-forth-criticism and controversy that comes with political alignment.
Going by the deleted conversation and its continuation on the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook, opinion is that David’s presence was unrepresentative of permaculture as a whole. As one commentator said, he could just as well have carried a banner identifying a permaculture presence at the anti-fascist counter-rally that day. Would he have represented permaculture? Yes, as far as David’s presence with his banner at the other rally represented it. Whatever the arguments around the incident, permaculture is now politicised and has taken sides—or a part of it has.
In his Pandemic Dreaming piece on his blog David links opposition to government measures as being in the same vein as the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations of the 1960s. This is a false equivalence because those campaigns were about saving lives.
David’s followed his initial blog post with another in which he more or less says that he supports the development of the politics of the rallies into a new political movement. He notes the absence of professional organisations and trade unions at the rallies, then speculates that the rallies and their mixed politics opens the space for the formation of new kinds of professional organisations and unions. Exactly what he is hoping for is ambiguous, however like other comments he has made, this one is sure to alarm people concerned about the rise of rightwing populism.
The perception that David has politicised a previously-politically-agnostic permaculture is clear from the conversations. Does this fly in the face of what permaculture people have been working towards for so long?
Who speaks for permaculture?
This is about the role of what sociology educator, Terry Leahy in his 2021 book, The Politics of Permaculture, called permaculture’s “charismatic authorities”. With Bill Mollison gone there is only one charismatic authority now, and that is David. Even others with a significant breadth of experience who are deserving of the status, like veteran permaculture educator and international refugee worker Rosemary Morrow, cannot rise to that status because, like a single-species niche in ecology, the position is fully occupied. Terry explains how this is so in his book.
Let’s briefly consider this question of leadership. Permaculture is an open source system and therefore has no formal leadership. David has intellectual and cultural power in the movement on account of his role with Bill Mollison in bringing permaculture into existence at the end of the 1970s, his writing on permaculture and his speaking at public events. Because of this many see David as a leader and spokesperson for the movement. Some supportive comments over the years reach almost into adulation in their praise. His is a position seldom questioned or criticised, as has been his ideas.
Permaculture’s actuality as a non-proprietal, open source system raises the question of whether there is anyone who can authentically speak for the permaculture design system as a whole. David gets to do much of the talking because he has built a support base through his influence and over more-recent years has been building a public presence as a speaker at sustainability festivals and the like. He positions himself as a public intellectual and futurist. Now, comments suggest that there has existed dissatisfaction with his assuming this leadership role, but without a place to discuss it, the dissatisfaction has remained an hidden undercurrent. According to comments made during the current issue, it appears that his position as the design system’s most prominent authority is no longer universally accepted.
Permaculture’s diversity, that much-touted quality, is also its hinderance in its public presentation. Permaculture can be represented as many things. Now, we clearly see how this creates confusion and dissent.
The message of David’s banner at the November rallies was vague. It said nothing about being a solution to the public division over how to deal with the pandemic. Was it representative? A reading of the online comments with their for-and-against argument says not.
David blogged that “Politically, the outsiders are diverse from hard-right libertarian to tree-hugging greenies and everything in between… The potential for these groups to come together in new forms of political organisation to reverse the changes of the last two years is enticing, and one way or another these new alliances will be part of the political landscape.”
This raised the alarm level among those concerned about David’s original blog post and his attendance at the rallies. Questions asked whether David is looking forward to this new, populist, and perhaps rightwing political formation. Would he position permaculture within it (or has he already done so?)? Would that mean that David’s supporters could deliberately or inadvertently support the election of the United Australia Party and One Nation? That is now a possibility. What would that mean for permaculture’s credibility? It would more than likely shatter it. These remain speculative questions made while the conversation is ongoing. A commentator on Evidence-Based permaculture wrote: “My take on this is that he sees this coming together as an ideal place for evangelism/conversion. He took 100s of retrosuburbia bookmarks with him.”
My concern is that the political attitudes of people recruited at the rallies could reformat permaculture in their ideological, political and social image. This would likely drive a bigger wedge between permaculture practitioners and alienate many who have worked through the decades to popularise the design system. The question then becomes one about the social utility value of permaculture as a means of taking meaningful action that spans political identities.
A split widens and becomes a chasm
When it comes to the pandemic, permaculture is a nation divided. We see this when people associated with permaculture post disinformation on social media as well as posts from rightist organisations such as coal mining industrialist Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and One Nation.
The rallies are supported by politicians like Pauline Hanson, Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer, three political figures associated with the right. They have spoken at rallies in different states. The anti-environemtal, climate change denial, pro-coal mining and other political actions by these people and their supporters is seen by many in permaculture, although not all, as representing the opposite of what permaculture stands for. Strange bedfellows indeed for permaculture. But, then, with its politicisation maybe permaculture is changing.
Comments like those coming from permaculture’s most prominent public figure potentially links both David and, by implication, permaculture, with the anti-science agenda of climate-and-Covid-deniers. Are permaculture people to disbelieve medical science but at the same time believe the science of climate change? Is this cherry-picking science? An ethical dilemma? Confirmation bias in support of David’s already critical understanding of society and social institutions? Just what is permaculture’s attitude to the scientific method?
Writing in Pandemic Dreaming, David explains why he avoids the Covid vaccination and his trust in the FLCCA physicians he claims are a good source information on clinical practise (Wikipedia describes them this way: “a small U.S. organization of physicians and former journalists formed in April 2020 that has advocated for various treatments for COVID-19, most of them ineffective (i.e. the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin) and some other drugs and vitamins of dubious efficacy”. David speaks proudly of avoiding paying tax by reducing his consumption and income, and his distain of trust in science: “rigid faith in the priests of arcane specialised knowledge maintained by an empire of extraction and exploitation.”
He also writes how he hopes his attitude will not cause a rift in permaculture — his “Can the Permaculture movement survive the first severe test of the energy descent future?” of his blog headline. The relationship of the virus to David’s energy descent future is vague. The notion of energy descent has come under question in the social media discussion, an artefact of the hidden dissidence below the calm permaculture surface that has had no venue in which to express itself.
In a piece I wrote in response to David’s blog I concluded that the controversy that erupted in the comments to his blog and on social media would not lead to a lasting split in the movement. Then came the rallies. Then their fallout. Now, I wonder if I have to revise my conclusion.
Judging by comments made on the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook it looks as though a split is all-too-real. I don’t know if it is reconcilable. Will people put it aside over time and come back together? It hovers mostly around permaculture’s presence at the rally, the far-right question and the deletion (some say censorship and deleting permaculture’s public and historic record) of the conversation on Retrosuburbia and Permaculture Australia facebooks. Permaculture might have eschewed politics in the past, but politics has not eschewed permaculture.
Decisional questions: what do we do now?
Well, people have already figured out what they will do. Some have been vocal in defending David while other have been equally vocal in opposing his action and the attitudes evident in his blog.
What someone did was set up the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook on the Sunday afternoon that the controversy started. The site encourages a science-based approach to permaculture and takes a broad, permaculture-as-design-system attitude to what is posted, including posts about the politics of permaculture. The site’s introductory blurb says its approach of trusting the evidence of science discourages revisiting “the frustration and time waste of pointless discussions where the science is already clear”, such as the “denial of human impact on climate change, denial of the need to mitigate and adapt, and denial of the efficacy of vaccination as a public health measure”. It recognises that “permaculture and science, far from being incompatible, have a history of walking together and improving each other, and will provide us with ways to make our communities and households more resilient.” The comment echoes others made online that see the dissension with permaculture’s status-quo as being equally about attitudes to science as to politics.
The group takes a broad, freedom-of-speech approach and warns that “there will be hard conversations. Take a breather if you need to. If you stuff up and think better of a comment later on, you don’t necessarily need to delete your posts.” Come back later, it says, and apologise if you feel you need to. I can only compare this attitude to the narrower conversational limits of some permaculture facebooks.
I thought that my earlier post outlining the incident would be helpful to people in understanding what had happened. That was its intent. It was promptly deleted from Retrosuburbia and Permaculture Australia Official. The Retrosuburbia admin later posted a warning notice that “off-topic conversations will be deleted; repeated attempts to create off-topic threads will result in removal from the group; abusive or threatening posts/comments will be deleted and the poster removed from the group.” A little authoritarian, perhaps?.
Now, those people who want to talk about permaculture’s hidden underbelly of disagreement on issues, and those adult enough to deal with controversial issues seem to be migrating to the Evidence-Based group. I don’t know if it will fill the vacant niche in permaculture of having no intellectual place in which to have analytical discussions about permaculture.
Social movements and permaculture
Let’s consider the incident and its fallout in its context of the dynamics of social movements.
Recruiting people to social movements is critical to their work and their continuity. But, when you do this you recruit different ways of thinking and new ideas. Over time, people start to assert those new ideas. Sometimes the movement is strong enough to absorb them. Other times it is not. What happens then? Internal dissention. And after that? If the differences are too great the movement splinters into factions and some people simply walk away from it. Comments on the issue suggested that perhaps more than the few were considering the last option.
I don’t yet know if we are witnessing the first factional breakup of permaculture. It presents a united face to the world despite the undercurrents of disagreement that have flowed below its surface. They are a product of its diversity that the current incident has brought to the surface. After the conversation around David’s Pandemic Dreaming post I thought permaculture would settle once again into its gardening-oriented comfort zone. Now, I wonder if the rift we are witnessing is too wide for that to happen.
The new group
As I read through posts on the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook I realised that the group is offering something not otherwise available to permaculture practitioners. That is a place where ideas and issues in the design system can be openly discussed without the threat of deletion for being off-topic, an online place to take a broad view of permaculture as a design system encompassing social as well as environmental and sustainability issues. Those conversations highlighted something else. It is this. There for some time has been disquiet over aspects of permaculture and the ideas and role of its leadership but there has been no safe place in which to discuss it.
Among this undercurrent has been concern over David’s role as unofficial spokesperson and how his life as a land-owning homesteader influences his point of view and beliefs, and how this is unrepresentative of permaculture people as a whole. Most permaculture people are not homesteaders, most do not live in a rural enclave of like-minded people, many do not own land to try their permaculture ideas on and it is possible that the escalation of home and land prices mean many younger permaculturists never will, most do not have the privilege of partial decoupling from the system and the option of avoiding paying tax by lowering their income and nor do they have the capacity to make a living through the partial self-reliance offered by property ownership and teaching permaculture. It is not me saying these things. It is people commenting online.
On reading the post allegedly linking Geoff Lawton’s post to the healthy lifestyle supposedly attributable to permaculture, one commentator summed up thinking on the social situation of permaculture’s land owning class of leaders who are able to practice homesteading: “Sorry to those who cannot afford a pastoral lifestyle with guest workers, not even a yard or balcony of their own. They don’t get to share in the wonderful secrets of immunity only known by the privileged, I suppose.”
Elephant number one stands in the same room as government policy. It is global heating and its impact.
Elephant number two concerns the future of the permaculture design system. “Anyone involved in permaculture knows that permies can come to quite different conclusions about what is the most ethical and practical solution to the same problem.” That’s David in his Pandemic Dreaming blog. What he says is now self-evident, the problem for some being his appearance under his permaculture banner at the Melbourne rallies and his attitude to science evident in a reading of his blog. Disconcerting has been David’s jumping on the ‘Big Pharma’ bandwagon. In adopting this mythology coming from the alt-left, the alt-right and the politicised wellbeing movement he appears to have neglected the necessary separation of the public health value of the science Big Pharma uses to produce medical products, and the behaviour of Big Pharma as a profit-seeking, global corporate entity. We need a more nuanced approach than some vague statements about big evil corporations. We need critical thinking. Will the ambiguity stemming from permaculture’s politicisation become the elephant lurking in its room?
Elephant number three is the potential for the social movement that has formed around pandemic issues and that manifested itself in the rallies on the streets of Australian cities to swing the federal and state votes towards the fringe parties of the right and to the existing federal government. If so, it comes back to what David said about it being the kernel of a new political formation that is destined to persist. It would boost the prospects of populist right parties in Australian politics. Although permaculture’s presence in the rallies is small, permaculture is nonetheless complicit in the possible creation of this new political entity and will have to accept whatever comes with that for its reputation.
The fourth elephant lurking in permaculture’s room has to do with the future. It could affect future perceptions of permaculture, depending on the attitude of its leaders and participants and their regard or disregard of scientific understanding. It is this: global heating is expected to enlarge the geographic distribution of viruses and bring more-frequent epidemics and pandemics. With the disinformation and wilful disbelief in medical science and government actions we see during the current pandemic, including within the Australian permaculture milieu, how will we as permaculture practitioners behave when they appear? Will permaculture have reclaimed its trust in the scientific process or will it have slid into delusion and social disunity?
David Holmgren’s blog posts:
More on permaculture’s politics
The pandemic response: a new rift opens in permaculture
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A state of confusion: Permaculture’s politics
An think piece written several years ago about political ideology in permaculture at the time…
The apology: A response to David Holmgren
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New but old: the disinformation pandemic resurrected
Today’s disinformation agenda carries overtones of similar programs during the Cold War and beyond. An analysis…
The new threat to journalists from anti-vaxxers, covid-deniers
MEDIA WORKERS are being targeted by anti-vaxx forces in France, the UK and the USA.
How Covid gives birth to conspiracy theories
A story from 2020 on the then-emerging conspiracy theories…