Permaculture economics: patterns in the regenerative movement

The “organic digital society” may be a mythical topic to some, but to an increasingly pivotal trans-local community, such matters of online coordination for ecological transformation have become their bread and butter.

Between the contemporary paradigm shifts of Web3, whole systems design science, and a critical mass of post-millenium voices thirsting for ecological reconnection, this self-aware movement began to germinate in a niche between worlds.

Its fundamental evolutionary trait: to design our interactions with the world, with care and mutual respect — together.

Wedding chapel designed by Hiroshi Nakamura — Image by koji fujii / nacasa and partners

At the core of this shift was an ability to reshape the way we exchanged value with each other; to take account of (and be accountable to) how we exchanged and interacted with our natural habitats; and creating the time to enjoy being with one another and with the fertile elements around us. This transactions platform began nurturing our almost forgotten way of being, bringing us back from the brink of debt extraction.

Life creates conditions conducive to life. Our attention, our thinking and our coming together: this is a garden which can be grown. With care, with growing awareness of social permaculture, this garden may be cultivated: to liberate ever more members and companions of humankind into a deep-world society based on living systems.

Everything gardens. Every dream, every discussion, every task, every lesson… and every choice we make, grows.

Russ Grayson, “Towards Permaculture 3.0”, 2015

Over the years there have been numerous surveys, reports and opinion pieces written about the even more numerous attempts to accelerate the impact of permaculture. There is huge potential for practitioners, educators and allies to respond to our simultaneous environmental, social, cultural and spiritual crises both with practical action and transformation of consciousness.

Those who resonate with the concept of permaculture often connect their practice with other disciplines to effect change in a specific way, such as in refugee camps, city councils, classrooms, or desert biomes.

A permaculturist designs from the awareness that ecology and society are interconnected; however, many of the loudest voices applying the term to their practice are mainly focused on growing pesticide-free food, leaving gaping holes in the movement’s ability to have an impact on fundamentally related issues such as migrant exploitation, land theft, and divesting nation state capital and international trade routes from a system based on fossil fuels to a cosmolocal and/or prosumer-based system.

Those who take a special interest in the social and societal aspects of permaculture (my colleagues and I included) specialize, evidently, in “social permaculture”.

The systems we design with can include education, economies, policies and decision-making, ownership, healthcare, childcare, elder care, project design, operations, preventing activist burnout, and so on.

Various campaigns for social justice and brands of social innovation relate, give platform to, and inspire our work. Hopefully this pollinates both ways, especially as the number of people turning social permaculture design into a profession rises. The Permaculture CoLab is one such area where viable careers in social permaculture are incubated.

What makes permaculture design somewhat unique in the Social Change space* is the acknowledgement that pro-social design must also integrate environmental conditions. We depend on having a healthy relationship with air and water, local biodiversity, and having access to wild spaces; which means consciously exchanging with living beings and ecologies for food, medicine, energy and materials.
*Although let’s recognize that it was a western man’s study and integration of indigenous practices which led to permaculture’s thesis. We will further explore issues of multicultural and especially indigenous visibility in subsequent articles.

Source: Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures (2016)

Now that humanity co-exists in cyberspace, we can start applying the permaculture meme of “appropriate technology” to the complex information networks powering our contemporary societies.

Whether we improve our designs and decisions by having access to data; resist the exploitation of corporate software giants; or build online spaces which incubate radical collaboration, entering the world of “tech” from a permaculture state of heart-mind exposes us to questions and possibilities of exponential proportions.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors of “crypto hype”, developments in Web3/dWeb technologies can inspire many insights about how emerging technologies could improve our economic and governance systems.

We can co-design across cultural barriers, filtering information by trust and relevance like never before; we can learn from each other, support each other and invest in local projects as a global community without the old tendencies for wealth and/or power to concentrate in the hands of a few. We can mitigate corruption, losses via monopolistic middle men, the optimization of capital toward or at the expense of unhealthy goals; and make the alleged ‘necessity of exploitation’ obsolete.

These things are open to us, but their actualization depends on those designing the future of the internet, and their dedication to earth care, people care, and fair share.

Using digital tools to meet permaculture aims may be exciting, but it’s far from straightforward.

Some people in our community don’t want to be online at all.
Others have restricted access due to living rurally or having limited financial resources whereby hardware or a private internet connection may not be feasible (particularly in communities which have had their wealth systemically extracted from them).
And then, of course, there are the ethical questions embedded in the devices we use and the dangers of surveillance capitalism.

Underneath all this understandable resistance is the steep learning curve which some feel permanently excluded from.

The learning required to have even basic digital literacy has gone “from 0 to 100 real quick” (to quote hiphop icon Drake).
For folks who are dutifully re-skilling themselves as ecological guardians, often from scratch (many modern ‘permies’ may have had no connection to our ancestral knowledge growing up), we tend to have an overflowing syllabus as it is.
We’re learning everything we can about seeds, soil, processing waste, building and maintaining houses, animal husbandry and so on while responding to unprecedented climate patterns and trying to bio-remediate the pollution and toxicity in our thirsty lands.
And now we’re being challenged to manage our own data and speak new machine languages? Can we simultaneously think like a forest and a database? (If this question excites you, try this).

Fortunately, none of this has to be the duty of one person.
By thinking like a village, members of the permaculture community across the world are starting to self-organize to share the load, and the adventure. We have raised a barn called The Permaculture CoLab to collaborate online in an agile, experimental, playful way.

Those of us with sufficient skills and interest in the digital applications of permaculture design are developing engagement pathways for all kinds of folks in our community, stacking functions by leveraging the need for education around these various skills to catalyze a network of meaningful and regenerative value flows. This is where SEEDS comes in.

Acknowledging that we all have something to learn and that the solutions being developed in the permaculture movement are worth sharing, we have started to prototype “project-based learning” pathways that help participants to invest in their own skills while simultaneously creating impact with their work.

By connecting members of our greater community*, we can stimulate a new “trans-local” economy where the wealth being invested stays in the community, continuing to circulate among those dedicated to earth care, people care, and fair share.
*This includes not only those who affiliate themselves with permaculture but also those who have skills in areas such as ecological stewardship and social benefit, as well as those who share our values or are working toward similar goals.

Local economies have been integrated into the theory & praxis of permaculture for most of its life.

We are no strangers to the benefits of local exchange, and are aware of many of its pitfalls or causes of failure. One common cause of failure is that a local currency gains very little utility, being accepted in very few places. Another pitfall is the expense involved with administration, often burdening one individual significantly more than others. This is often compounded by, again, the lack of (economic) literacy among community members.

In the world of decentralized finance, or DeFi, the problem of utility is also the solution — the more people want to transact with the network, the more value the currency has; the more value it has, the more people want to use it to transact. If we want a viable currency that embeds permaculture ethics into our exchanges, our challenge is getting a critical mass to stimulate a positive feedback loop of self-regulating value.

The SEEDS project provides generative conditions for the permaculture movement to reach maturity, as we can team up to address global challenges together with a community who are aspiring toward systemic impact which aligns with permaculture’s values.
The finances of our non-profit and for-benefit projects can be divested into a system which is designed to prevent concentration of wealth and/or power, and whose environmental footprint is vastly smaller than the current global banking system. We are empowered to participate in the governance, helping to steer the transaction engine itself.

Most importantly, we share the work of providing better financial prospects for local producers; by representing and integrating previously ‘hidden’ benefits such as biodiversity and community building into our value flows.

The first offering we are developing as an alliance partner — training and opportunities for project-based learning) — is based on a form of wealth that the permaculture community has in abundance:
Knowledge about creating regenerative systems.

By circulating Seeds in our networks, this leads to the onboarding of ever more local producers and wisdom keepers to the SEEDS marketplace and community. This positive feedback loop creates more utility for exchange both trans-locally and, in time, in more and more local communities too.

Expanding skill-building opportunities trans-locally through a participatory platform commons — Source.

The joint efforts between our networks are symbiotic.
We are creating and weaving in new value flows and tethering meaningful exchanges to collective objectives. This is ethical investment reimagined.

While we continue to face a range of formidable challenges in the digital paradigm alongside the collapse of ecological and social systems, we also have this opportunity to cooperate at scale.
By collaborating with other organizations and networks who prioritize bio-regional resilience and mutual sovereignty, we can focus our efforts into building a very high-impact, anti-fragile, regenerative tomorrow.
Is there any better job than serving our world at this nexus of change?

Let’s help each other to be better and to do better, together.

Let’s adopt SEEDS as the first trans-local currency of the permaculture movement.

Words: Naomi Joy Smith

  • Steward, Training Coordinator & Engagement @ The Permaculture CoLab Steward, Collaborative Tech Alliance
    Chair, Reculture Foundation
  • Aunty & part-time nomad with roots in Te Awakairangi, Aotearoa (NZ)

Many thanks to:

Luiza Oliviera, Christina Sayson, Aline vaMo, Luis Tiago, Aimee Fenech

Special shoutout:

My ecosocial economics thinking buddy: A. Keala Young

Invoking wisdom & generosity, playing with permaculture in tech. Into weaving, tea, music, patterns & cultural evolution. What questions are living within you?