How can permaculture contribute to building a new economy? Conversation with Andy Goldring of the Permaculture Association

Blog home
1
Andy Goldring of Permaculture UK

We’re going to be publishing a range of videos of interviews with key people involved in building the new economy – an economy that is democratic, non-extractive and sustainable. I’m sure you’ll agree that our current economy is far from that. We start with Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association (see video below).

Hello Andy – here’s a doozy of a first question for 9am on a Monday morning: If you had a one-minute slot on peak time, global TV, what would you say?

Well, I’d probably prepare quite a lot, rather than having no preparation! But the thing that comes to mind is the Gregory Bateson quote – that the major problems in the world are a result of the gap between the way nature works and the way humans think the world works. Really, we need to learn to act and think like nature. When we do that, everything gets much easier.

So what’s needed is a paradigm shift away from the mechanistic, Cartesian model of the world that sees humans as separate from nature, and minds as separate from bodies. It’s all about separation rather than unity, and it sees the world as a mechanical device. And it works – it can get a man on the moon. But the downside is this growing cultural sense that we’re separate from nature, and that it’s a machine rather than a living thing. If we treat nature like a living thing, it works better, and we work better.

When farming is done in a way that works with nature, it’s more productive. If you have a field with just one crop, it doesn’t work as well as a field with many different crops. Polycultures are more stable and higher-yielding than monocultures. Nature doesn’t really do monocultures. No prairie has one grass etc. So if we ask ‘how does nature work and how do we apply those principles to the way human systems work’, we can make human systems work better too.

What was his name again?

Gregory Bateson – he was an anthropologist. His partner was Margaret Mead, who came up with the famous saying: ‘never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world – it’s the only thing that ever has’.

So you went straight into nature and growing things – and I think a lot of people believe that that’s what permaculture is about – farming, land and nature. But it’s about more than that, isn’t it?

Yes, it is about more than that – but food production is very important – especially how you design those systems. Permaculture is the application of systems thinking to real-world problems. So our systems thinking is inspired greatly by nature. Nature is a great system. My body is part of it, and is also a natural system. It’s a combination of billions of cells, bacteria etc. – it’s difficult to know which bits of it are really ‘me’ – but it’s an incredible system. It’s all about relationships – the outputs of one system become the inputs of another.

But are you just talking about food production?

No – for anything and everything. Techniques are great – for example a gardening technique like mulching. It’s really great for many things – suppressing weeds, reducing evaporation and moisture loss, etc. But techniques are limited. Whereas principles are less about what you do – they help you think about the way that you do things. The great thing about principles as opposed to techniques is that they can be applied in a huge range of situations. So for example, the principle I mentioned above – making the outpus of one system the inputs of another – I can use that principle at home when I’m composting. The compost goes on the veg patch, the veg come into the kitchen, and the stems, peelings etc. go back into the compost.

That’s a simple example – but I could use the same principle to create an industrial ecology in West Yorkshire, where I live. The outputs of some factories could be the inputs of other factories. The principle can be applied at any scale, and in any context. Permaculture involves a range of principles, and you don’t have to use all of them in any given situation. But this is what I mean by learning to act and think like nature. Permaculture is a different way of looking at the world. We’re not trying to change the way people think – that comes across as a bit rude. After all, how do I know how they think already? But what we can do is to offer another thing, to add to what they do and think, if they like. So, it’s about giving people more tools to use, rather than changing the way they think. If using these tools and ideas means that they let go of other things – well, that’s up to them.

So permaculture is a set of thinking tools, in many ways. But it’s more than that – let’s imagine we’re making a permaculture cake. There are 3 ingredients. First, an ethical framework – earth care, people care, fair shares: are we looking after the earth’s living systems; are we making sure that people have got the things necessary to meet their own needs, including land; and finally, how do we make sure that the earth’s resources are shared fairly between individuals and between countries, but also between humans and other species. At the moment, humans are dominating the biosphere. The dominant approach is to take as much as we want, and anything left over (if there is anything left over) is for nature. The permaculture approach is to try to meet our needs with the smallest possible amount of land and resources, so that as much as possible is left over for nature and wildness.

We’re not just dominating the biosphere, are we? We’re also slowly eroding it.

That’s right – it’s like an insane closing down sale. Everything must go!

What’s your main role now?

Fundamentally, I try to enthuse and make connections. There’s a technical role in reporting to a board of trustees, and making sure that the organisation is working well, that everyone’s happy and we’re doing the things we said we’d do.

What are your priorities at the moment – what areas are you looking at?

We’re trying to work out how the Permaculture Association should respond to a world in crisis. It’s difficult to see now how we’ll avoid catastrophic climate change. If you look at the clear, concise graphics produced by the MacArthur Foundation, that show how much time we’ve got left for different scenarios, we went past the medium estimate for 1.5 degrees change about a month ago. We’ve got a year and a half before we pass the upper range. So the idea of a ‘carbon budget’ is nonsense, really, because it suggests that we can use more carbon. But in reality, any fossil fuels that we use now are just going to contribute to pushing us way past safe limits.

There’s a debate about whether global warming is increasing exponentially. Do you think it is?

We don’t know for sure – it’s possible. We’re taking a little step back, to think about how we redouble our efforts, to ensure that systems thinking, and our approach to creating regenerative, resilient systems, can be more widely adopted – as quickly as possible. So we’re looking at our communications; thinking about how we can accelerate learning; and we’re looking at how we can build our networks, so that those networks can work more effectively together, both inside the permaculture world – like CoLab or the European Permaculture Network – or outside, like CTRLshift and others.

Tell me more about those things you mentioned.

CoLab is the Permaculture Collaborative Laboratory. Permaculture is anarchic in the sense that it’s self-organising. There’s no formal international structure. There’s no-one controlling it. It’s spread rapidly because it’s being spread by an informal, grassroots education approach.

So can anyone do something they think is permaculture, and give it a permaculture label?

That’s right – there’s no regulator. It’s all about how good you are – that’s what will make people come back to you. In the UK we have a certified permaculture teachers register. That certification is something that the teachers came up with, so it wasn’t imposed by the Permaculture Association. But teachers thought it was necessary so that the public can be sure that they’re getting a good teacher. We’re not stopping anyone else running a permaculture course, but if they’re not on the register, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be any good. If we hear reports that someone is particularly bad, we might flag that up on the website, for example. But we don’t police anyone – we only vouch for the people we know.

I think that permaculture is a great thing – and the more I look into it, the more I like it. How did you get into it?

Well, I think my teenage years were defined by deciding what I was against – saying ‘no’. I decided that I wasn’t interested in the status quo, or the corporate agenda, and I wasn’t interested in working in the corporate sector. It became an increasingly strong no, and eventually I thought that I’d make myself unemployable by doing a fine art degree. Artists can be very radical, and have often been at the forefront of revolutions.

Funny you should say that. We’re involved with a group of organisations, trying to build a national mutual credit scheme. We’re inspired by a scheme called Sardex, in Sardinia, that was started by a group of arts graduates. They didn’t have technical skills – they had to bring those people in.

One of the great things about art is that it’s an approach, just like maths, science, or permaculture. They are ways of looking at the world. I don’t see art as a subject, but an approach. What it gives you is a creative way of thinking about the world. I finished my degree in 1992 – a period of high graduate unemployment. I didn’t think I was going to be a fine artist, so I had to think of something else. I now started to look for the ‘yes’, after years of ‘no’. I hitch-hiked down to London to see the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner. I bumped into a friend who’d just come back from an International Permaculture Convergence in Denmark. I asked him what permaculture was. As he started to tell me, it was like that moment as a child at Christmas, when you’re opening a present and getting a growing feeling that it’s exactly what you’ve been looking for. I was very excited, and I’ve been excited by permaculture ever since.

What successes have you had?

Well, I think personally, my greatest success is still being here. I don’t say that lightly, because all sorts of fantastic organisations, networks and groups in Britain and around the world really rely on so much goodwill and volunteer labour. They’re often underfunded and struggle to survive. When I first encountered the Permaculture Association, it had a variety of internal problems. I became a trustee in ‘96, and in ‘99 I was asked to look after the office for a year. People were burning out fast. I had to decide whether to step back or to go for it and risk burnout. I decided to go for it, to take a longer-term view and to try to look after myself and avoid burnout. And I’m still here.

Yes, if your work constantly reminds you of the dire condition of global ecology, and what that mean for humans in the longer term, it can get a bit depressing. There’s nothing else I want to do though.

Yes – we just had a poll of our membership, and they’d like us to change the education system, change agriculture and build a sustainable world – quite a big job! So our members have big ambitions, and that can put a bit of pressure on us. But our achievements include the International Permaculture Convergence in London in 2015, and we had over 1000 people from 70 countries; we’ve got a really successful diploma programme with over 400 apprentices; we’ve got about 120 demonstration centres in England and Scotland. So we’re doing a lot.

Just to change subject – my wife and I live in London, but we’re looking to move out to a smaller town, possibly in some sort of a cohousing project. Do you think a permaculture world is possible if there are so many cities of over 10 million people?

10 million is getting tricky I think. But we don’t know yet, because we haven’t tried. For me, the model of garden cities put forward by Ebenezer Howard is a vision that is very powerful. The idea is to transform the peri-urban landscape to be highly productive, using the outputs of the city for its inputs. In the ‘Farmers of 40 Centuries’ book, that F H King wrote, based on his experiences of Chinese peasant agriculture, he describes the smallest coin available, worth a bucket of shit. But a bucket of shit had value – human waste was collected and put onto the fields, making them fertile for 4000 years.

So if we can get the nutrient flow right between the cities and their rural hinterlands, then I think huge change is possible. Plus the flow of people from cities into the surrounding countryside, to connect with nature – this has huge therapeutic and health benefits. Land surrounding a city, and even inside the city, can be used to produce food. Another permaculture approach is to produce edible landscapes – including settlments that are themselves productive – so every south-facing wall has a peach tree or a grapevine. We can hugely intensify the way we use our urban space to produce food, and also connect our peri-urban space with the urban environment.

I’d love to see that too. When we moved into this house, there was a skip-full of concrete in the front and back gardens, which we dug up; we gave lots of slabs away on Freecycle, and people came to collect them; and we planted fruit trees, fruit bushes and flowers in the front and back gardens. Unfortunately, at the same time, our next-door neighbour concreted his front garden to park his car – along with lot of other people in our street. We seem to be swimming against the tide.

Well, huge changes are coming – climate change is going to see to that. It’s going to have massively disruptive effects, all around the world. If we’re going to respond, we’re going to have to rethink the way we live on this planet. That might sound like a big deal, but actually, that’s what we’ve always done. When we were kids, growing up, we thought of the Second World War as so long ago – but I was born in 1970, which was only 25 years after the war ended. The change from 1945 to 1970 was profound. And the changes from 1920 to 1945 were profound too. And from 1970 to the present. My great-grandad was born on a Greek island, and his life could have been in the 17th century. His son worked for Lockheed Martin and helped send rockets to the moon. The capacities for human beings to change is extraordinary.

The push for the next big change is coming quickly – more quickly than we realised. The task now is to map out our pathways, and help people to make that transition as quickly as possible.

Yes, I think Africa’s going to bear the brunt first. The Sahara is advancing at kilometres per year in some parts of West Africa, and the population of the continent is set to quadruple. But globally, it looks like deserts are going to grow – the southern hemisphere is looking pretty screwed, and in the north, the Mediterranean is going to get drier and hotter, and the UK is going to become a bit more Mediterranean, growing more grapes, figs and drought-resistant crops. Meanwhile the temperate growing zone will move north towards Canada and Siberia, and the current arctic ecosystem will disappear, as there’s nowhere further north for it to go. This movement is bound to happen unless we prevent further warming – and nothing we’re doing will prevent further warming. The big problem is that there’s no brake – we’re still trying to grow our economies and consume more and more each year. So if there’s no brake, ultimately we’re headed for a desert planet – even possibly a Venus-like planet.

The most impactful things we can do immediately are a) plant more trees, and b) possibly, introduce more grazing animals.

I think that almost everyone would agree with the first point, but that second one is controversial.

But look at Jordan, for example – a country that considers itself to be 97% desert. I went to Jordan for the International Permaculture Convergence in 2011, and I saw the Madaba mosaic, from the 6th century, which shows a map of the Middle East. There were lions depicted, and the accompanying text said that lions were numerous in the area. Now to have lions, you need large numbers of big grazing animals; and to have that, you need lots and lots of grass. So Jordan isn’t mainly desert – or at least not natural desert – it’s desertified savannah. And only when we realise that it’s desertified savannah will we come up with a solution. ‘Desert’ sounds like a final destination, but ‘desertified savannah’ sounds like something that can be restored.

But can it be restored with increasing global temperatures?

Maybe. Let’s start now. I’m not suggesting that the world will stay as it was. There will clearly be places that will change. However, when a landscape is ‘brittle’ (susceptible to desertification), you need animals to process nutrients. In a non-brittle environment, like, say, Wales, micro-organisms in the soil always have moisture, to allow them to break down organic matter. Wales doesn’t really need grazing animals. But in dry areas, nature has put all those micro-organisms in a protected place – i.e. the guts of animals, and that’s where the soil-producing decomposition takes place. So dry places need animals to produce the healthy soil to support vegetation. And vegetation is what the land surface needs to hold soil and moisture, and to form the basis of a healthy ecosystem.

But will the human population and economy allow a healthy global ecosystem? Let’s start with population. I notice that in the UK, the population is going to rise from 66 million now to over 80 million by the end of the century, and at the same time, Germany’s population is going to fall from 80 million now to around 70 million. The population of other countries will fall too – like Japan, Italy and Eastern European countries. But then I happened to look at Somalia. 11 million, now, and the projected population by the end of the century was 81 million. I assumed it was a mistake, so checked some other African countries – and most of them showed the same sort of rise. The population of Africa is set to rise to 4 billion by the end of the century, from 1.2 billion now; and the global population is headed for something like 10 or 11 billion, from around 3 billion when I was born. Does the Permaculture Association have anything to say about population?

Yes, it does. We have to live within the earth’s carrying capacity. That’s a given. That means that we have to create limits, for ourselves – limits to our overall consumption. But the relationship between consumption and population is complex. For example, the average American has a ‘footprint’ 60 times that of an average Bangladeshi. That means that the earth could support many more people if we all lived with the consumption levels of Bangladeshis rather than Americans. Put simply, the permaculture movement is saying that humans need to get back to one-planet living – in other words, living with the resources and waste absorption that one planet can provide – because that’s all we’ve got. At the moment, the UK is at the 3-planet level, the US is at the 5-planet level, and the whole world is at 1.7 planets. So this level of consumption can’t be sustained. So we have to reduce our consumption overall by a very significant amount. There are a number of ways we can go about that. Talk about population is usually about ‘other people’ – usually in poor countries. But if we focus on consumption, we can see that the richest 10% of the world are causing over half the climate change.

Yes, but our governments are trying to claim that as our economy grows, our emissions are going down. But they’re not, if you include the factories in Asia that are producing the goods for our markets – the electrical goods, the toys, the clothes, the household products – almost all manufactured goods, in fact, then our emissions, and our ecological impact, is enormous. Plus the emissions from flights in and out of the UK aren’t counted in official figures. I find it dishonest.

So we need to help some people to reduce their consumption levels, and some to have smaller families. And the best way to do that is to look after people, with social care, health care, family planning advice, and especially, to educate women. None of it is coercive. I have a friend who tells me that population isn’t a problem, because if humans can be a force for good on the planet, then the more of us, the better. I tell him, sure – but we haven’t reached that point yet. We’re living with a 1.7 planet footprint, which means we’re definitely not a force for good.

Some people are calling for climate change to be considered an emergency. And I agree. We don’t know what kind of feedback loops could start to send average temperatures up much faster than we are currently projecting. Mass famines and resource wars could then mean that population growth is no longer a problem. Quite the opposite – we could be reduced relatively quickly to small bands of people living very primitive lives compared to today.

I’ve never really understood the ‘more is better’ argument, even if we could reduce our footprint below one planet. New Zealand and Japan are both island nations in the Pacific, simlar sizes, but New Zealand has fewer than 5 million people, and Japan has over 120 million. Does that mean Japan is a better country, or a better place to live than New Zealand?

Of course New Zealand still has quite a large impact, because lots of people fly there, and it’s very remote.

You’re right. But moving away from population now – we’re interested in reducing the market share of multionational corporations. Is that something that’s important to you, and why?

Yes it is – because first of all, there’s something about the size of things. When things get to a certain size, strange things happen. I think that most people who work for Exxon-Mobil are probably quite nice. But the corporation as a whole acts in a very bullying and destructive manner. There’s something about accountability, responsibility, that is lost at large scale, as well as they’re being ‘too big to fail’ and requiring lots of taxpayers money to bail them out. One of the things I like about getting local food is that I can go and chat to the people growing it, and have a look at how they do it. I’d have no way of knowing, if my food and other goods came from the other side of the world. I couldn’t just walk into a Bangladeshi sweatshop to see how they were treating the workers.

I think the scale issue applies even to co-ops. If you walk into your local Co-op retail store, most of the staff will know nothing about co-operative principles.

I just think that there’s no need for such large companies – you don’t have the local connections, as I mentioned, but also, most things we need can be made by smaller companies, either locally or nationally, without the massive profits that go to a tiny minority of shareholders, and not to the people who actually do the work. Ed Mayo from Co-operatives UK spoke at the Permaculture Convergence, and told a story of a worker who met his boss in the car-park, getting out of his Lamborghini, and said ‘that’s a nice car’ – and the boss said ‘yes, it’s lovely – and if you work really hard next year, I can get another one’.

It seems to me that there are better ways to allocate surpluses. The third Permaculture ethic is key here – ‘fair shares’. Everyone gets earth care and people care, but the important part of fair shares is that we could reallocate surpluses so that they go towards more earth care and people care, rather than Lamborghinis and huge profits for the already wealthy.

So at the moment we have a water industry that extracts around £1.6 billion per year and gives it to shareholders. If instead we were to deprivatise the water industry, or decant it to the non-profit sector, and when I turn on my tap, I get water from the West Yorkshire Water Co-operative, who still charge for their services, but the workers get a fairer share of income for their work, and the surplus is put back into the ecological restoration of West Yorkshire (which is where the water comes from). We could then create a beautiful set of ‘cycles’. All these things are possible, when the institution is not a corporation.

Definitely. I still have friends though, who don’t see a problem with using corporate supermarkets, or other corporations, and ask me what the problem is. I tell them that a percentage of the money they spend immediately leaves their community, whereas shopping at a small trader means that the money stays in your community longer. Your description is even better. But it’s not difficult to understand, surely?

I’m not against enterprise or entrepreneurship, it’s just that I’d rather see a much bigger co-operative sector, a much bigger Solidarity Economy. If that was the dominant form of business, that would be a very interesting shift. And probably the biggest shift I’d like to see in the co-operative sector is to really embrace its responsibility to the environment as well as to workers. If that redistribution of wealth was fixing nature as well as fixing inequalities, we could use the economy to steward our resources and protect the environment rather than to use resources as quickly as possible and to trash the environment. So I think what you’re doing with NonCorporate is good.

Well, I’m completely on your team.

I remember conversations we had in Wigan [CTRLshift steering group], when maybe it didn’t feel that way.

Yes, I guess I felt that CTRLshift was trying to be too broad a church, possibly even embracing ‘corporate social responsibility’, which polishes the image of the corporate sector without addressing its extractive nature, and giving it legitimacy that will increase its market share, when what I want to do is the exact opposite.

Yeah. I’d like to discuss how we make the transition from a corporate world to a co-operative world. What’s that process, which converts what we’ve got to what we want?

I think we just continue to help build the non-corporate sector, which is going to take a lot of hard work – especially in the face of corporate opposition. They can be nasty.

This is why I’m interested in de-privatisation, as opposed to nationalisation. If people propose nationalisation, it’s as though the solution has already been decided – we must go from corporate control to state control. But if we think about the transition differently, by using the word de-privatisation instead, it doesn’t imply what the solution is. So it could mean state control, but it could also mean local citizen councils, or co-operatives, or regional bodies etc. It just means that we’re going to take it away from the corporate sector and turn it into some part of the social sector economy.

I’m 100% behind that. I think the NHS is slowly being sold to the corporate sector. Wouldn’t it be great if it were decanted into social enterprises and co-ops instead?

So finally – and I’m having this conversation with everybody – a group of us, including Open.coop, are attempting to build a national mutual credit scheme, a way to trade without money and banks. We’re talking with people at Sardex, a scheme in Sardinia. Now Sardinia has a smaller population than Birmingham, but its mutual credit scheme handled trade with the value of 81 million euros last year – although no money changed hands. So I guess we’d like an endorsement from the Permaculture Association – and from other like-minded organisations, so that we can use those endorsements to promote the scheme.

The key issue is the proposal. I haven’t seen any details on exactly what it will be, who will own it, what it will do and how etc. As soon as you’ve got that, then yes. It’s something we’d want to encourage, because it’s helping the Solidarity Economy, and it’s encouraging the idea of inputs and outputs, and connecting things up, and it has the potential to be more like an industrial ecology. So yes, I think we’d be very interested.

So once we’ve got prodedures, rules, governance in place, or even if we’ve started trading, would you be happy to spread the word amongst the permaculture movement?

Of course – no doubt. And we’d like someone to come along to talk about it at the next CTRLshift too.

We’d love to do that, yes. Thank you.

Well, I think I’ve at least half answered your questions.

You’ve done more than that – thank you very much Andy.

 

Highlights:

  1. Huge changes are coming – climate change is going to see to that. It’s going to have massively disruptive effects, all around the world. If we’re going to respond, we’re going to have to rethink the way we live on this planet. That might sound like a big deal, but actually, that’s what we’ve always done.
  2. The push for the next big change is coming quickly – more quickly than we realised. The task now is to map out our pathways, and help people to make that transition as quickly as possible.
  3. I’d like to discuss how we make the transition from a corporate world to a co-operative world.