I am using some long-term leave from work to get hands-on experience and do due-diligence around the whole permaculture concept. Basically I want to see if the realities live up to the claims. Yesterday I paid a brief visit to a rural-residential community with a reputation for being designed and operated around permaculture principles. The community in question is located within 650 acres of bushland in the coastal hinterland not far from where I am currently living. The area itself is blessed with relatively high rainfall, at least by this country’s standards. For many years it hosted a viable dairy industry – not anymore, but that is another story.
I arrive at the village green, where there are about ten cars parked outside some timber buildings. It’s Saturday morning, and a group of 60-somethings are sitting around having coffee, tea and cake, and having a chat. I order a coffee and take a seat. I hear a few of them discussing how the community lacks vibrancy, but that at least it has more life than the nearest town. There is a for sale sign on one of the buildings – I later find this was the local store and the owner must have given up on the whole enterprise. Some opinions are expressed about how things might be improved, and what a pity it is that such and such is no longer here, etc etc. At this point a woman from the group comes over to say hello, probably to see if I’d like to buy a piece of cake. The conversation that follows is rather instructive.
I am asked if I happen to be staying at the community caravan park – there is a small one there with maybe a dozen spots. I explain that I am not, I am just up to have a look around as someone suggested I might be interested as I had taken an interest in permaculture. I ask about the local population, how many, and what about their employment status. The whole community consists of something like 200 people on 80 approximately 1 acre allotments, of mixed ages, many retired (including herself) but many still working and some of those commuting up to an hour or more to work in the capital city. She says, with a mix of disappointment and resignation, “there used to be a doctor, but she moved away”. They do have a dentist, an electrician and a plumber and if i recall correctly maybe one other useful professional. I don’t think it was a lawyer or an accountant. I get a sense the whole thing has been a bit of a failure, but no-one wants to admit it.
The conversation moves to the guiding principles of the community, specifically around permaculture and self-sufficiency. I ask to what extent she thinks the community is “self sufficient”. I decide to be a bit contentious – “what, 20%, maybe 30%”? She thinks a bit and says somewhat sheepishly, “no, not even that”. She goes on to say that she does believe she manages to “tread lightly” – presumably a reference to the notion of her “ecological footprint”. She goes on – “Yes, a lot of other things” come from the nearest big town (25 km away) – these days a trendy, upmarket highland village that grew up to service the surrounding farms. She and her husband now have a generator because they lost power for several days due to the recent storms as the contents of the fridge went off. She then points at the community garden behind the green, and mentions that pretty much everyone grows their own vegetables on their allotments, as well as keeping chickens. Her husband has built up the garden beds as she cannot bend over so easily these days. I tell her that being on the wrong side of 40, and having just spent 2 weeks doing actual work on an organic farm, I can fully appreciate what she means. We briefly discuss how labour-intensive farming can be, how the economics of farming generally is all screwed up, and how food prices should be higher and how more people are needed on the land. As we are then interrupted by a another customer, I bid my farewells.
If you’re still with me, I guess you might be wondering about the moral of the story. Here it is: It’s fine to be idealistic when you are a well-off baby boomer retiree or a self-employed professional benefiting from the tail end of the biggest credit bubble in the history of the world, but the realities of “self-sufficiency” are rather different. Remember the phrase “no, not even that” – this is very telling. I am not about casting a wet blanket on “permaculture”, “sustainable communities” and the like. I still think they are the future, not so much because they are desirable, but as I believe we will ultimately have no choice but to live within much more modest bounds.
For the most part the current generation of retirees can and will do absolutely nothing about the challenges we all face going forward – they don’t have the will or the need. Yep, they might be pushing up daisies by the time push comes to shove anyway, and the government, their great and ever benefactor, will come and save the day if something happens in the meantime. Hey, life can be great when the pension money keeps rolling in. If you’re a business-person or well-paid professional in the right area, who can afford the commute time or work local, pretty much the same deal. The garden may really be a bit of a chore (not that you like to admit it), but then you can show your friends how environmentally conscious you are and what you are doing for future generation by living green. If you need some things you can’t grown on your one acre, you can always go to the store, just a 1 hour round-trip. When you get sick, the local hospital will send an ambulance, or better, they will send a nurse to give you in-home care. Life on a sustainability theme-park without all the hard work and inconveniences! This is not sustainable, much less regenerative. It is a nice dream waiting to turn into a nightmare.
So, what then? Until circumstances really do start to change – whether quickly as by a revolution, or more slowly as might normally happen, the only thing to do is be well to be prepared and ready to move as opportunities present themselves. People will start to wake up, but it will not be a pleasant experience for most. As well as preserving and enhancing your capital, invest now in your own knowledge and intelligence about the areas where you can see yourself a being productive person when the time comes. Where doesn’t matter, provided you find your path and follow it with eyes wide open.