Ecological dreams, Economic realities

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.

7 comments to Ecological dreams, Economic realities

  • Robert

    Amen to all the above. My opinion on Permaculture (I did the design certificate in ’05 and then spent 4 years travelling and working on organic/permaculture places) is that it is what people will do when they run out of other options. Which makes sense, if you can, to live in a place where people already don’t have other options, parts of rural ones that aren’t in the G7.

  • Dava

    So, it sounds as though you are profoundly disappointed that this compound, as it were, is not almost entirely self-sustaining now. i am confused as to why. I am of the baby boomer generation, preparing for retirement now. I am fairly new to the whole prepping concept, I admit, however, I seem to have done much if not most of the prepping activity as a part of my natural personality. A wannabe homesteader that couldn’t do much due to the whole work, family, survive routine.

    Now, that I am more able to apply myself, and I am more awake to the issues of our need to prepare, I am taking steps to be ABLE to provide for myself and family should the need arise. I have no intention of being 100% self-sustainable now, however, I have the long term food storage, the land, the seeds, the herbal and essential oil knowledge, the books, the weapons, and am seeking training for all of the above. But I intend fully to utilize my ability to shop, go to doctors, etc.

    It does not seem unreasonable to take this approach and am curious as to why you feel self-sufficiency is the way we should all be living now.

  • Pat

    Is this Crystal Waters your referring to ? – Your observations are correct if that’s the case. My wife and I till five years ago ran the farm and the local store there. Some of the enterprise can be seen on you-tube under ‘ The Village Organic Farm’ Part 1 and 2 ( I apologise if it may upset any vegetarians or vegans- a little non judgement would be great as we’re all evolving). It was a portal in the communities history when the possibilities for a new way of living existed. It was exciting. Down in the village area supported a good market garden and bakery (seen in Part 2 of the you-tube presentation) and the farm was also providing not only the needs of the community but also free range eggs to the sunshine coast IGA’s(supermarket chain), fruiterers and restaurants. The farm/shop itself in its last days was employing 13 people admittedly part time but the possibilities for expansion and diversity were great. – We would host regular feasts with other producers in the area with the intent of producing our requirements in a small radius to minimise our reliance on imports.
    After nine years and investing all our monies on community land putting up with consistent ankle biting and dealing with a body corporate and a coop board whose members were the same faces revolving between the two as the ‘sanity’ faction of the community either didn’t have the time to dedicate to committees or couldn’t be bothered dealing with the personalities ( generally in the older age bracket ) and the endless energy that was required for what I considered trivia ( so not dissimilar to the world we were trying to get away from ). We were exposed to 9 odd external agencies that were bought in by anonymous ( community) informants which coincidentally generally occurred not long after controversial community meetings where motions were presented to vote on with the obvious intent to curtail the farm activities failed. One such agency threatened us with $160,000 fine for milking 10 cows and distributing the milk and it’s various products to the community – we were saved interestingly enough by our then local state MP.
    We decided to quit after our last local feast with guest Sally Fallon.
    My wife gained a Churchill Scholarship for what we were doing.
    We basically walked away. Infrastructure given away/scrapped. What’s left is what was the old shop and cheesery ( that we still pay the coop rent for the land that’s on even though it’s empty) and that I would love to take away if I had a place to put it.
    I now commute to Brisbane each day getting up at 4:30 am filling the car up with fuel 3 days a week to make ends meet.
    For all this sounding negative I’m still hopeful things can change-still not sure how as residential and agricultural land here is still high and a huge risk unless of course you have the money and an independent income and don’t need to sell produce and hop in the system.
    I hear most intentional communities struggle with the same dynamics.
    Good luck.
    Websites like this provide positive solutions once we recognise we can change things.

  • stevenr.f.

    I agree. Permaculture is what we need, and it’s also not ready for launch. It’s so wound up with leftover leftists and half-baked greenie propaganda that often what people call permaculture isn’t, or is handicapped by being saddled with other problems, like being run mostly by young-ish retirees who have no real agricultural experience and are unfit to do the hard labor. In order for ANY culture to flourish, it needs a balance of young marrieds with kids, middle-age folks with older children, and grey and blue-hairs doting on the grandbabies. If you are missing any link in the demographics you’re in trouble. I think this goes double for any kind of culture that at root is agrarian.

    Oh, and self-sustaining? *sigh* Fuggedaboudit. Humans are inter-dependent. We are not simply individuals ready-to-launch, like an IPO. We are born helpless into family units. Families are the basis of culture. We go out the same way, helpless, supported by family. We would do well to remember that and not buy into hyper-individualism OR the inverse. Families need communities, and communities need other communities to make up for the lack in each. It’s how it’s always been.

  • Silver Shield

    This is why in the Silver Shield Report we do not focus on sustainability but to have the most economically successful community ever.
    Right now the focus is on capital, net work and intellectual foundation.
    These three things will bring together and incredible amount of wealth and problem solvers when the world is at their feet.
    Having a smart designed city around people and not cars is a huge start.
    We will do thing like biogas and aquaponics not for economic reasons but because it is the right thing to do.
    Equity inventing competition in currency is the moral way to a free and fair economic system.
    At the end of the day we will need to create value in energy and manufacturing to create real wealth.
    It is my goal to attract as many to this as possible.

  • Marvin Motsenbocker

    This thread of comments is particularly insightful. Thank you all.

    I conclude from this thread that the way forward is: A. stack silver, B. stack development of relationships with other group members, C. stack food, materials that are needed for the future, D. stack training (personal skills).

    Stacking actions A and C are personal and private generally. Stacking actions B and D benefit from working with others and the SSR. Lets stack B and D as much as possible at this group level. I am learning from Paul in NJ and others for skills and materials for communications. I hope we meet 2/28 in Buffalo at Mark’s place (anyone else join us for ham radio and building skills?) This weekend I am visiting an edamame development farm in Richmond to study how to grow this extremely nutritious and delicious food. (can anyone join me?) Jay (N. Virginia) is organizing a trip to Salitin’s Polyface farms in Central Virginia in May (contact him). Such small steps provide personal wealth and are a silent protest against the elite and their ruinious behavior. Small steps count.
    best wishes to all stackers

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