Confronting the Context: Permaculture and Capitalism 22

I’ve written before about the challenges faced by permaculture enterprises. Farms, like other land-based permaculture projects, are faced with the formidable task of regenerating ecosystems and communities, while surviving in a system that rewards the destruction of the same systems. Permaculture projects have to compete with degenerative enterprises and institutions that are happy to take the efficiency ‘bonus’ from unsustainable and exploitative practices.

The consequence is that it’s hard for permaculture enterprises to keep costs as low, and therefore people with less of an economic buffer, who have to minimize costs as much as possible, find it hard to support regenerative enterprises as consumers. That’s most of the world, in case you were wondering.

So the regenerative enterprises that we would like to create have a difficult time offering products and services that most people can afford, and most people can’t afford to support the regenerative economy. If we want real change, then this impasse demands our attention. We need new strategies for scaling up from gardens. We need new institutions – ones that can provide an interface between our regenerative practices and the degenerative economy.

Permaculture’s take on institutions is not as developed as its take on landscapes. This is probably not news to anyone – but it’s important to spell it out. While some attention has always been reserved for alternative institutions (e.g. Chapter 14 in the Designers’ Manual), the focus of permaculture’s principles, strategies, and techniques, has always been on the human-landscape connection, not the human-human connection. We have to look outside permaculture for more substantive insight on these questions.

Enter Emily Kawano, and the Solidarity Economy perspective. Emily Kawano

Emily is the director of the Center for Popular Economics and the US Solidarity Economy Network, and works with the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy. I had the opportunity to teach with Emily last January, and I don’t mind saying that it was a little bit of a revelation for me. For the first time I felt like I was encountering a way of thinking about economics that resonates with the best of permaculture thinking.

I knew that it was going to be good when the subject of capitalism was introduced in an email discussion leading up to the course (thanks to Patrick Gibbs) The discussion soon turned to whether and how naming capitalism would serve the course, particularly in terms of the risk of alienating politically mainstream attendees. I found Emily’s contribution very useful, and I’ll reproduce some of that discussion here (with her permission).


“Sometimes speaking frankly and forcefully is what’s needed, no matter how difficult it is to hear – but that’s a strategic question that is driven by context and goals. A lot of the familiar ways of talking about the toxic aspects of our social order are really alienating to some folks. I’ve found that framing issues of disparity as a wound in the social fabric, bigger than all of us, that forms a barrier between us and where we want to be, can be an effective way of supporting people in thinking strategically and not shutting down.

By starting from the place of people articulating their goals and desires, and keeping those desires on center stage as the reason for making change, disparity and the systems that produce it become less of a personal indictment and more part of the landscape we have to design for. Capitalism, as a term, is complex, loaded, and means very different things to different people. There may still be a time to use it, but almost certainly not at the beginning of the week.”


“I agree that it can be a delicate dance between presenting a clear critique of capitalism and the need for systemic transformation on the one hand and alienating your more mainstream allies on the other. I’ve been surprised at how [the] goal of inner city community revitalization through job creation, worker ownership and economic democracy has been widely embraced by mainstream folks from various sectors… [T]here’s pretty wide-spread recognition that the mainstream strategies of economic development have failed, especially in poor communities of color, and there’s a receptiveness to new ideas. If you’re talking about job creation, you’re golden. [W]e don’t generally talk at the level of critiquing and seeking to transform capitalism as we’re focused on the practical tasks of getting these businesses up and running.

But when we have an opportunity to, for example when we bring a speaker from Brazil in to talk about the solidarity economy, then it makes sense to bring in the transformational agenda. I agree that an emphasis on the merits of transformative practice is more useful than blasting capitalism. And you have to choose your moments. [I]t is critical for organizers/practitioners to have a clear eyed systemic analysis of capitalism so we can build towards systemic transformation instead of lovely but isolated practices.

I completely agree that there’s a lot of smoke and obfuscation [about the meaning of capitalism] – but that’s a problem.

So when do we talk about capitalism in permaculture? If we don’t address it as a system, can we possibly design institutions that can do what we need them to do? Can we design permanent agriculture (or settlement, or whatever) without a systematic analysis of the existing landscape? There is no reason to expect that we could.

The permaculture literature has always shied away from of systematic analysis of institutions – and perhaps as a consequence, so do many permaculturists. When you compare permaculture’s basic analysis of social systems, with the sophistication of our analysis of agroecosystems… it’s kind of embarrassing.

Q: Why are we in this mess?

A: Greed!  Greed and stupidity! 

If you look to Mollison for your answer, that’s just about all you’ll get. Not that greed and stupidity aren’t active forces in the world (lol?), but shouldn’t we also ask why their impact is so great? The permaculture lit has paid very little attention to the processes that are producing, rewarding, and maintaining greed and stupidity. It’s like looking at 10,000 acres of GMO corn and saying that the the pests and weeds are the problem.

Solidarity Economy  is a way of addressing our economic system as a system, and designing institutions that can regenerate social well-being while thriving in the here and now. It’s worth noting SE’s several commonalities with permaculture. SE crafts a popular, accessible framework, based on principles and patterns, that serves as user-friendly front-end for an extensive and detailed analysis of socio-economic processes. SE is solutions focused – after spending the minimum amount of time necessary discussing and diagnosing the current system, the attention turns to strategies for change. It’s driven by bottom-up action – though unlike permaculture, SE is consistently and explicitly about groups. Like permaculture, it focuses on creating new institutions rather than reforming old ones – though like permaculture, the ideas can easily be adapted for reform, as well. Last but not least, it’s both a conceptual framework and a rapidly growing international movement.

SE provides some resources with which we can address capitalism as permaculturists, and more broadly as systems designers. We start, as always, with site analysis. We define the system. As Emily kindly pointed out above, the lack of a shared understanding of the system is a problem – and I would add, a needless gift to the status quo. The Center for Popular Economics has been using these five elements to define capitalism for more than three decades:

(1) Private, rather than common, ownership of the means of production (factories, tools, land, etc)

(2) Production for sale (not use)

(3) Profit maximization

(4) Wage labor

(5) Market exchange

But a list of elements is not a system. To make it more systemic, I tried to map out some of the dynamics that emerge from the interaction between elements. That was pretty cool (for a first draft), but then I got smart, and turned the mapping over to a group.  During the  Economics unit at the 2013 Finger Lakes Permaculture Design Certificate Course, I placed the five elements on the white board, explaining each as I put it up. I explained that our task was to map out how the elements interact, and then put up two examples. It’s fair to say that class and I were equally excited about the exercise. (Sorry I have no pictures of the process – just the result!)

It’s important to note that the five elements aren’t absolute and universal. Capitalism easily accommodates a bit of common ownership of land and resources, a smattering of non-market exchange, a pinch of production for use instead of sale… But these five elements are the overriding patterns in the system. Local variation from that norm doesn’t necessarily dispel or disprove the overriding pattern, but they can provide points of leverage, or refuge, from which to build.

Even more importantly, we should notice what’s not on the list, e.g. entrepreneurial spirit, free enterprise, individual and collective ambition and innovation, and democracy. The idea that opposing capitalism means opposing these aspects of freedom is one of the great bugaboos of the right. What we are opposing are the mechanisms by which are whole society is organized to reward greed and destruction. We can change the social context of the entrepreneurial spirit to make it more robust, so that more people have a chance to take their amazing idea and make it useful, make it real.

While we’re at it, I want to note that while capitalism uses markets to determine basically all questions of allocation, that doesn’t mean that we have to be completely anti-market if we want to replace capitalism. Markets are just one element out of five – and capitalism is the system composed of all five of these elements. Just like with entrepreneurial enterprise, we can put markets in a new social context. We can use markets to do some allocation, at a human scale, without having the weird mystical cult of infallible markets that we live and die under today.

So if this is the system we face, what do our institutions need to look like? The Solidarity Economy framework points to examples of of models that exist in different economic spheres: worker cooperatives in production, community development financial institutions in finance, and community land trusts in consumption/ownership. All of these models can mesh in straightforward ways with the existing economic system, while at the same time undermining it. Substituting collective ownership for private ownership has a cascade of effects that make it possible for enterprises to optimize for multiple functions – including ecological and social health – instead of simply maximizing profit. I’m especially interested in worker cooperatives, because of how this can be applied immediately to the many permaculture enterprises that are being started every day. It’s also a model for which there are incredibly successful examples already.

Note that it’s when cooperatives are networked together, like reciprocal elements in a permaculture design, that the model becomes the most powerful. See the Mondragon Cooperatives, in Spain, and the Evergreen Cooperatives in Ohio that are modeled after Mondragon. These cooperatives have attacked the dichotomy of owner and worker, so that all workers have both a stake and a voice in the enterprise. Workers with a stake and a voice have the flexibility to respond to multiple imperatives – including things like ethics.

It also means that the cooperative has as access to collective intelligence and insight that is much greater than what the owning class can ever buy. We need more of this in permaculture – and badly. These are the kinds of institutions would should be building as nests for our regenerative enterprises, that can thrive now while making a very different future. It’s clear to me that Solidarity Economy is a natural ally to permaculture, and I’m looking forward to all the opportunities ahead of us to integrate these frameworks.