Where is permaculture’s speculative fiction?

In late-2020 Australian permaculture author Linda Woodrow published her speculative fiction book, 470. The publication highlighted the potential of the literary genre to get permaculture ideas across.

Russ Grayson
Jan 21 · 20 min read
The interaction of science, technology, environment, society and people is a key component in speculative fiction. Photo: The CSIRO’s old solar thermal installation at White Cliffs NSW.

THE LITERATURE OF PERMACULTURE is best described as instructional writing. Books and manuals explain how to grow food, how to design an energy efficient house, how to teach the permaculture design system. It is factual writing. There is reportage too, articles about ideas, permaculture places and permaculture as a social movement.

The practical nature of permaculture books makes sense because permaculture is applied design. The exception is Bill Mollison’s 1997 book, Travels in Dreams: An Autobiography. Bill, with David Holmgren, co-originated the permaculture design system and announced it to the world in 1978 as Permaculture One.

But… what about fiction? Can it have an instructive or inspirational role in the permaculture design system? To get an understanding of how fiction writing influences permaculture and is influenced by it we step into the literary realm of speculative fiction. First, though, let’s figure out what speculative fiction is.

Speculative fiction and its formats

The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids… Cory Doctorow

Speculative fiction is a term used to describe not only science fiction, ‘sci-fi’, but its subgenre of alternative futures. Climate-change-based speculative fiction has recently been given its own tag of ‘cli-fi’. It is speculative fiction themed around the impacts of and responses to climate change.

The speculative fiction genre offers a way to think about the future by encasing it in a fiction-writing format. It features all of the structural elements of fiction writing: plot, character, drama, direct speech, setting, story climax and more. Writers take facts, invent characters and create causal relationship between events and between characters. Something happens because something else happens. There is connection between things, an interrelated sequence that builds tension and drama in rising action leading towards a climax. It often follows the classic fiction-writing format of Freytag’s Pyramid: background exposition > rising action > climax > declining action > resolution.

Could where settlement, edible landscape, bushland and intermediate technology meet be a potential setting for a permaculture speculative fictional storyline? Photo: Ted Trainer’s Sydney home.

Can we have speculative fiction without this structure? Stories which are not dramatic, do not lead the reader along a path of rising action and tension to a story climax? Yes, we can. They won’t be exciting reads but they can introduce new ideas or dissect some event. They might, for example, speculate on some real event using fictional characters, setting and direct speech. An example plotline: two friends are sitting talking over a cheese platter and wine as the evening becomes night. The story starts slowly and continues that way through its journey. The characters and their backgrounds are described. How did they come to be sitting here, talking? How did they meet? Their talk leads to a more-in-depth discussion about some event. They talk about how it happened, the people involved, the outcome and how it affected themselves and others. We can see how a real conversation like this could form the basis of a story with fictional characters. It might follow the story of then, the story of us (the characters) and the story of now, where the situation leaves them or others.

“You can never properly predict the future as it really turns out. So you are doing something a little different when you write science fiction. You are trying to take a different perspective on now”, writes speculative fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR).

Speculative fiction asks that most important question science fiction attemps to provide answers to: what if? If this happened what could follow as a consequence? And what would that trigger? How would people respond? How would it affect our future? The potential effects become the storylines for speculative, alternative futures.

This is what Australian author, Linda Woodrow did in her 2020 novel, 470. The what-if question was: what if climatic heating led to severe weather events which degrade social institutions and affect peoples’ lives? How would they cope? For Kim Stenley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy it is a similar question about climate change-induced sea level rise and weather and its effect in Washington DC. Both novels have trigger events which start a new timeline for their societies and have a central question about how people and institutions might respond. An alternative trigger event could be the emergence of a new technology which forces substantial social, ecological, economic or economic change. Or, perhaps, the sudden arrival of a pandemic and its global spread and how it leads to the restructuring of economies, societies and peoples’ futures.

The genre offers us a way to think about the future, whether that is the short-term future of next year or long-tern future of next century. For permaculture writers, speculative fiction offers a way to get permaculture ideas across to audiences that would not otherwise encounter them.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place. You’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse. But you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.”

Speculative fiction: what role in permaculture?

What has speculative fiction to do with the permaculture design system? Little, until Linda Woodrow published 470. It’s the tale of family and friends in an ecovillage in the Mullumbimby hinterland of North Coast NSW and their search for a way to live in the deteriorating climatic situation with its damaging weather and social breakdown. Permaculture is no stranger to the region the story is set in. It is one of a number of permaculture enclaves around the country. Although Linda doesn’t discuss permaculture in the book, her background in the design system situates the novel within a permaculture context. It was among the permaculture milieu that her book found its first readers.

Linda is known to permaculture practitioners through her earlier book, The Permaculture Home Garden. The way she talks about herself in her bio at en.PermaCultureScience.org has bearing on her book:

“I do believe in science. I love the scientific method for observing and understanding reality. And thus I find it hard to believe that anyone doesn’t believe that climate change requires us all to seriously change our addictive consumerism, now, yesterday.

“I live in a community set up in the early 1980′s. I think if we forget and lose the skills of living as a community, we are going to be in big trouble, especially as we negotiate the challenges ahead.”

Linda and Kim Stanley Robinson’s books can also be read as a new vector in the established genre of environmental speculative fiction. That dates back to the early days of environmentalism as a social movement in the 1970s, a time when environmental science was starting to gain momentum.

KSR: Master of the genre

When it comes to making a link between speculative fiction and permaculture we need look no further than American science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR). Permaculture pops up in a number of his books and interviews. His website describes it this way:

Permaculture is a concept integrating an ecological approach to all aspects of human endeavours. It is a design system for sustainability encompassing agriculture, building, living and other aspects of human activities.

Kim Stanley Robinson.

The web page offers an explanation of KSR’s affinity with permaculture:

‘Kim Stanley Robinson is a promoter of permaculture and has mentioned it repeatedly in interviews and in his works. He also sees it as a portmanteau of permutable culture as the concept would not imply a steady state but an ever-evolving culture that conserves sustainability in its core principles.’

KSR writes what is known as ‘hard’ science fiction, which is science-based. There’s no fantasy in his books, no wizards, no dragons, no princesses in castles, no fabulous empires, no unicorns, no magic. Just extrapolated reality. He also writes alternative histories which put some of his books outside of the science fiction genre. KSR’s The Years of Rice and Salt and Shaman are about alternative pasts, alternative histories.

‘Robinson is the latest in a long line of sci-fi writers, going back to Judith Merril and Robert Heinlein in the 1960s, who argue that science fiction is the only genre that, one, treats seriously the complex effects of technological change on humanity, and two, confronts the ecological devastation of Earth by industrial capitalism”.

KSR is an American leftist of democratic bent and an enthusiastic mountain hiker. Interviewed by Christopher Lydon on Literary Hub in 2017 where he discussed capitalism, climate change and dystopia, KSR described his political education as coming “from Fredric Jameson and from the ’60s, ’70s American left, anti-Vietnam, California hippie. Also Gary Snyder and his Californian Buddhism”.

KSR’s life in the Village Homes development of 225 homes and 20 apartment units in Davis, California, has been influential. Jeremy Smith writes about it in January Magazine:

“Bound together through the ‘warp and weft’ of committees, boards and potlucks, its residents govern Village Homes with a cheerful semblance of democracy.

“Science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson has served on its elected board of directors, volunteered on the community’s horticultural committee and architectural review board, and written for its newsletter.

‘“I moved into Village Homes in 1991,’” says Robinson, ‘and it strangely echoed what I had already written in my utopian novel, Pacific Edge, so that I felt I was coming home in a way.

‘“Its strong sense of community, focus on children, volunteer committee work and agricultural work, and lives led outdoors doing a fair bit of vegetable gardening, [has] been the biggest single influence on my thinking in this last decade.’”

Those in permaculture with a long enough memory will recall how in permaculture design courses Village Homes was put forward as a model of ecological residential planning, energy-efficient architecture, renewable energy and the edible landscaping of public space. In its day it was an icon of the permaculture approach to urban development.

Science, technology and their effects play a central role in KSR’s books. His novel about a climate-change-flooded New York, New York 2140, follows his Science in the Capitol series, a more-dystopian trilogy that follows the experiences of the lead character as the national capital grapples with the impact of sea level rise and climate change. His semi-utopian Mars Trilogy — Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars — which describe the trials, tribulations and triumphs of terraforming and settling Mars as a quasi-egalitarian, hi-tech, post-scarcity society, and which draws parallels with present-day trends and developments on Earth, takes a sympathetic approach to advanced technology. His 2020 novel, The Ministry for the Future, takes us to 2025 when the Ministry is set up to advocate for future generations is a world increasingly beseiged by the impasct of global heating.

KSR’s affinity with permaculture is a template for taking the design system into the unfamiliar realm of speculative fiction where alternative futures are explored as a way of thinking about trends and decisions made in the present. Permaculture, after all, is about a particular type of desirable future that remains largely fictional at this point of our timeline.

Ecotopia: Ahead of its time

Speculative fiction has been used to explore socio-environmental issues for some time. These carry an echo of permaculture ideas.

Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 alternative futures novel, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston ran parallel in time and attitude with the emerging environment movement and the alternative subculture of the decade. At the time, environmental science was gaining ascendency. In the book we find parallels to notions of society later found in permaculture and the tools it would use. How much the book influenced what we might call ‘green’ thinking, and how much the ideas prevalent in the alternative lifestyles and incipient environmental movement of the time influenced the book is anybody’s guess.

Ecotopians do not reject the hi-tech that serves their society, nor do they reject politics as that was the only route to realising their ecostate. Decentralisation, renewable energy, living in extended families, green building, employee ownership, a twenty-hour work seek and a plethora of ideas familiar to followers of the alternative subculture of the time and of permaculture find a home in Ecotopia. Like Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel, The Handmaiden’s Tale, Ecotopia is set in a breakaway state, however its socially liberal and democratic values are the opposite of the authoritarian theocracy in Atwood’s book. They reflect the zeitgeist, the vibe among young people of the seventies.

Ecotopia—back cover.

Ecotopia carries overtones of a socio-political movement proposing the breakaway of the Cascadia region of British Columbia in Canada along with Washington, Oregon and nearby regions of the US to form its own nation state. The idea was not new and gained exposure through the bioregional movement of the 1980–1990s, which influenced thinking in permaculture. An alternative idea circulating in this movement was the formation of a Cascadian bioregional network as an alternative to the nation-state structure. It would be characterised by “environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties and freedom, increased regional integration, and local food networks and economies” according to its Wikipedia entry. The idea had popularity among bioregional advocates of the 1990s. Bioregionalism was incorporated into permaculture as a planning concept at that time.

Reading it today, Ecotopia is noticeably dated, however it remains a worthwhile read for those interested in the history of environmental fiction.

Other influences

Speculative fiction writers talking about permaculture are very few, however some discuss ideas prominent in permaculture.

American author Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is the story of the search for a meaningful spiritual philosophy and the journey to an intentional community in northern California amid a nation in social and economic collapse. Science fiction author and scientist, David Brin, describes the impact of climate change in his 1990 novel, Earth. He forecasts the Worldwide Web in describing a global web of communications.

We can look to the past, too, to find what we might today call speculative fiction. How about a tale of environmental refugees fleeing the dessication of rural farmland in search of a new life in a far-away place, only to be met with hostility by locals? That’s the storyline of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about the drying of the American Mid-West, Grapes of Wrath.

Futurism is not speculative fiction

Alternative futures: they come in speculative-fictional and speculative-factual forms. We’ve aleady looked at the fictional. Futurist writing takes existing facts and trends, extrapolates them into the future and speculates on their impact. It is a projective genre based in today’s realities from which authors speculate about the coming years or decades based on what is happening today. It is imagined fact based on actual, present day fact.

Future Scenarios is a work of futurism.

A futurist book known to permaculture readers will be David Holmgren’s 2009 and now out of print edition, Future Scenarios. The work speculates on trends evident at the time of its writing. David’s imagined futures ranged from business-as-usual extractive and polluting industrialism, to the lifeboat scenario of survivalism, on to a hi-tech, green technology future and to earth steward. The book is description-without-a-storyline in form, similar to other futurist writing such as one of the first of the genre, futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, Future Shock, and his 1980 release, The Third Wave. There are no central characters, no rising tension leading to a climax, no action taken by protagonists, no protagonists. While David’s ideas are accessible to readers it is not a book people will read on going to bed as they would the easier-reading style in which profound ideas are embedded in a fictional story and in which the fictional form drives the story.

David Holmgren, author of Future Scenarios. Photo: ©Russ Grayson.

Speculative fiction is carried on a storyline, like Linda Woodrow’s or Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels. David’s book and others like it are not woven into a narrative using fictional forms. Future Scenarios is a work of futurism because it looks at present trends and extrapolates them into a number of alternative futures. David speculates that a combination of climate change and an oil fuel shortage and consequent price rise stemming from the peaking and then the decline in the availability of oil could be the trigger event at which our society bifurcates along alternative future timelines.

The danger with extraplating present trends into possible futures is that it cannot take into account the significant, unforeseen events that change societies. For example, while David might be right about the peaking of the global oil supply, the scenario developing from that might be negated by the development of a new energy technology. The example is the horse-drawn carriage of the Nineteenth Century. Ask someone from the time to speculate on the future and they might cite the need for better street cleaning to remove horse manure, or a future of wider roads to handle increased carriage traffic. What they would not have foreseen, and which substantially changed the future, was the coming of the internal combustion engine. Nor can his book take into account the black swan events (so-called because black swans were considered improbable), those unforeseeable and imporbable occurrences which have a profound and lasting impact after which things are never the same again. David’s Future Scenarios is more a work of speculation based on current trends. Not fiction, but not fact either. Just possibilities.

The technological possibility: it’s potential for speculative fiction in a permaculture context

One possibility that David’s book does not address in any detailed way is the reality that, now, we have the technologies that could sustain a post-scarcity future. The nearest he comes to this is his green technology future, however he doesn’t see this as the desired future, rather that its components, like renewable energy, would be part of his earth steward model. Nor does his book spend time exploring how those regimes would affect working and social life.

The idea that we have all the technologies we need to move to some kind of sustainable future was put forward by Bill Mollison. As technologically advanced economies started to computerise in the 1970s, a conversation started in society and the media about how the increased productivity the new machines brought could lead to a shorter working week and a better kind of economy and society. One of the questions asked was about what we would do with all of our leisure time that the increased productivity brought by computerisation could liberate. That didn’t happen because the neoliberal economic order, also starting to come in then, commoditised what could have been that excess free time by maintaining the existing working week.

The idea of a technologically-enabled shorter week and more hours for our one interests and projects went to sleep for a few decades. Now it is being awakened, thanks to the coming of artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technologies. Current thinking is that by fully automating as much human work as we can, working hours could be substantially reduced, our time and lives freed and frivolous ‘BS jobs’ disappear. The idea would provide an avenue to a different, technologically-enabled version of David’s green tech and earth steward futures as it moves us away from the scarcity-based economy of capitalism into a post-capitalist, post-scarcity future. One of the books that have attracted attention in this idea is Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, published in 2019.

The ‘communism’ in the title has nothing to do with authoritarian states that have co-opted the term. Although a bit hyperbolic, the publisher’s description of Bastani’s book on https://luxurycommunism.com/about/ describes his vision: “Automation, rather than undermining an economy built on full employment, is instead the path to a world of liberty, luxury and happiness. Technological advance will reduce the value of commodities — food, healthcare and housing — towards zero. Improvements in renewable energies will make fossil fuels a thing of the past. Asteroids will be mined for essential minerals. Genetic editing and synthetic biology will prolong life, virtually eliminate disease and provide meat without animals.… Aaron Bastani conjures a vision of extraordinary hope, showing how we move to energy abundance, feed a world of 9 billion, overcome work, transcend the limits of biology and build meaningful freedom for all. Rather than a blueprint for utopia, such a shift merely heralds the true beginning of human history.”

The idea recalls the alternative future of Ecotopia in a hi-tech form. Modified for the needs of dealing with global heating, do Bastani’s ideas have potential for incorporating ideas from permaculture in a speculative fiction book about how we get there? Surely there is potential for such a book given the reticence sometimes evident in permaculture towards synthetic biology, genetic editing, lab meat and other innovations which would provide an author with the points of tension and conflict that enliven and drive works of fiction. The central question of such a book might be that fully-automated hi-tech clashes with permaculture’s model of nature-based design, however despite the different roads they take a fully-automated society might open a path to a fuller application of permaculture design in a post-scarcity society.

When we read the work of futurists maybe we can keep in mind the words of a student in the University of Groningen’s Decision Making in Complexity and Uncertainty course, Lindsay Powell: “Forecasting in general is right in only one respect — most predictions will be wrong.” Or, as speculative fiction writer, Cory Doctorow (and here) wrote in For the Win: “The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids.”

The presursor: Ted Trainer

Ted Trainer—visionary futurist and author.

(Disclosure: I was tutor and sometime guest lecturer for Ted Trainer at UNSW)

Ted Trainer was a futurist writing on themes later the focus of David Holmgren and permaculture. Now a retired UNSW academic, he is the author of a number of books written around what he called the ‘simpler way’. Ted’s teaching was based on the projections published by the Club of Rome in their 1972 book, The Limits to Growth.

Ted Trainer’s are forerunners of contemporary ideas around de-growth, urban agriculture, anti-consumerism, steady-state economics, appropriate technology (Fritz Schumacher’s ‘intermediate technology’ in which Ted was a tinkerer) and ideas and examples that appear in David Holmgren’s 2018 book, Retrosuburbia. Like David, Ted saw the conversion of the suburbs as critical to developing a sustainable, egalitarian and humane society liberated from the constrictions of the workaday world and from the neoliberal economic order.

Ted Trainer’s vision of the suburbs repurposed was a harbinger of David Holmgren’s ideas in his book Retrosuburbia. This is the world of now. Below, the suburbs transformed. Illustration: ©Ted Trainer.

In correspondence with me some years ago, Ted outlined the characteristics of his vision.

“I refer to this alternative as The Simpler Way. Its core principles must be:

  • far simpler material living standards
  • high levels of self-sufficiency within households, national and especially neighbourhoods and towns, with relatively little travel, transport or trade; there must be mostly small, local economies in which most of the things we need are produced by local labour from local resources
  • cooperative and participatory local systems
  • a different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production and consumption than at present, and a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons; there must be no economic growth at all; there must be mostly small local economies, under our control via participatory systems, and run to meet needs not to make profits (although I think we could have markets and many private firms)
  • most problematic, a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.

“Modern high technologies and mass production can be used extensively where appropriate, including IT. The Simpler Way will free many more resources for purposes such as medical research than are devoted to these at present, because most of the present vast quantity of unnecessary production will be phased out.”

Ted Trainer with homemade solar thermal device.

I published the online conversation with Ted as The Trainer Papers.

His simpler way parallels David’s earth stawardship model from Future Scenarios, the only one which David sees as sustainable over the longer run of history, however Ted’s does not negate hi-tech. That was apparent in his lectures at UNSW. His future is a mashup of low-tech, hi-tech and intermediate tech. Would Bastani’s fully-automated society model be a means of achieving it?

Where is permaculture’s fiction?

Other than Linda Woodrow’s 470 and the books of Kim Stanley Robinson we have yet to see permaculture ideas expressed in speculative fiction writing. What we have is something of a minor flood of books on how to do permaculture. That is better than the drought we had 30 years ago, however is it time for a more adventurous approach that stimulates imaginations and, perhaps, actions, to make them reality?

Speculative fiction is a genre eminently suited to exploring permaculture and what a society that takes its ethics and design principles seriously could look like. It offers a way to get permaculture ideas across to readers who would not otherwise encounter them. That includes readers of science/speculative fiction. They are important because they are people open to new ideas and who are searching for them. What could they bring to permaculture that could make it an inflection point after which things are never the same again?

KSR and permaculture http://www.kimstanleyrobinson.info/content/permaculture

Linda Woodrow http://www.lindawoodrow.com

The writings of Ted Trainer…

The Case for Simplicity (Simplicity Institute Report, 15c, 2015)

Remaking Settlements: The Potential Cost Reductions Enabled by The Simpler Way (Simplicity Institute Report, 15e, 2015)

A Limits to Growth Critique of the Radical Left: The Need to Embrace the Simpler Way (Simplicity Institute Report, 14b, 2014)

The Simpler Way: A Practical Action Plan for Living More on Less (Simplicity Institute Report, 12a, 2012)
Dr. Samuel Alexander, Dr. Ted Trainer, and Dr. Simon Ussher.

The Alternative, The Simpler Way
A detailed account of the lifestyles and systems that would enable dramatic reduction in global resource and environmental impacts, while raising the quality of life.

The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World
Envirobook, 21010. Read a summary of the book — click here.

Speculative fiction…

2020 Linda Woodrow; Melliodora Publishing, Hepburn. ISBN (print) 9780 6483 44247 ISBN (digital edition) 9780 6483 44254

Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston
1975, Ernest Callenbach; Banyan Tree Books, USA.
ISBN 0553348477

Grapes of Wrath
1939, John Steinbeck; The Viking Press, USA.

Other titles…

Future scenarios: how communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change
2009, David Holmgren; Chelsea Green UK. ISBN-10: 1900322501

2018 David Holmgren, 2018, Melliodora, Hepburn Victoria.
ISBN 9780994392879

The Permaculture Home Garden: How To Grow Great Tasting Fruit And Vegetables The Organic Way
1996, Linda Woodrow; Penguin Australia.
ISBN 0670865990

The Limits to Growth
1972, Donella H. Meadows,
Dennis L. Meadows,
Jørgen Randers,
William W. Behrens III ; Club of Rome; Signet Books, USA.
ISBN 0451057678

For the Win
2010, Cory Doctorow; Tor Teen USA. 978–0–7653–2216–6.


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