Mutual Aid Revolution and Permaculture As a Political Force(1)

Can Permaculture Become a Revolutionary Force?

What would a revolutionary permaculture movement look like? As food shortages begin to sweep the world, the prospect of a Deep Green Resistance—a movement combining relocalization with organized political resistance—grows ever more relevant.

Can Permaculture Become a Revolutionary Force?

By Max Wilbert

As coronavirus unravels global supply chains, wildfires cool in Australia, Arctic ice continues to decline, and 2019 goes down as the 2nd hottest year on record, we all know how bad things are.

Unless there is fundamental change to the socio-economic fabric of global societies, the future is bleak.

Here in the United States, both major political parties are completely insane. Even the most progressive Democratic politicians are only proposing what amount to relatively minor reforms to the economic systems we live under.

Policy proposals like The Green New Deal in the U.S. and plans like the Energiewende in Germany aim to maintain a modern, high-energy consumption lifestyle while only changing the sources of energy we use. Much more is needed.

As we accelerate further into global crisis, we are seeing increased instability around the world. Refugees are on the march, food instability is rising, extreme weather events are becoming commonplace, and as a result authoritarianism is on the rise. Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, and Erdogan reflect the hopes of a fearful population looking for a strong patriarch figure to lead them to safety.

But there is no safety to be had behind walls and armies, not when the world is burning.

Industrial Civilization is Fragile

A founding principle of Deep Green Resistance is the understanding that modern industrial civilization is fragile. While globalized supply chains enable the system to easily recover from regional shocks, industrial capitalism is highly vulnerable to global disruptions, as CoViD-19 has shown.

More of these shocks are coming, as industrial civilization undermines the ecological foundations of life. Soil depletion and desertification, aquifer depletion and fresh water pollution, deforestation, ocean acidification, the rise of dead zones, and overfishing are just a few of the trends.

We are seeing cracks in the industrial food system, which is leading people to question modernity. This questioning is a good thing. It’s essential that we begin a wholesale shift away from high-energy, consumeristic lifestyles and towards local, small-scale, low-energy ways of life. We need to abandon industrial capitalism before it destroys all life on the planet.

Various movements such as Transition Towns and permaculture have been saying this for a long time. Their message is essential, but in my opinion incomplete. The dominant culture has always destroyed and exploited low-energy, small scale, sustainable human communities.

That’s what colonization is. And it’s still going on today. A failure to grapple with the racist violence necessary to maintain and expand modern civilization is one reason why permaculture movements have remained mostly white and middle-class (capitalism, and poor people’s resulting lack of access to land and free time, are another critical factor in this).

Building a Revolutionary Permaculture Movement

Therefore, not only do we need to relocalize, we also need community defense and resistance movements dedicated to pro-actively dismantling industrial civilization in solidarity with colonized peoples and indigenous communities. We can’t just walk away. We have to fight like hell and bring a revolutionary edge to all of our organizing. We have to combine building the new with burning the old. The faster the system comes to a halt, the more life will remain. And there is no time to waste. This is probably the only way to save the planet and guarantee a livable future.

The failure of mainstream political parties of technological solutions are becoming increasingly clear to average people. They are looking for solutions. Popular movements are becoming increasingly confrontational. But still, it is very rare that anyone is able to articulate a feasible alternative to the dominant culture, the techno-industrial economic system.

A politicized permaculture movement has this alternative. A political permaculture movement, allied with resistance movements and working to rapidly re-localize and de-industrialize human populations could provide a feasible alternative to partisan gridlock while demonstrating a tangible real-world alternative. This movement needs to begin at the local and regional levels, seizing power in schools, county offices, water and soil boards, and building our own power structures through localized food networks, housing, labor, and political organizing.

I have heard it said that permaculture is a revolution disguised as gardening. Perhaps it is time to drop the disguise.

Our Pilot Project

In Oregon, Deep Green Resistance is engaged in a community mutual aid project in collaboration with local indigenous organizers and other allies. We are distributing to the community free of charge:

  • Food
  • Seeds and gardening supplies
  • Plant starts
  • Gardening pamphlets and guides
  • Freshly-hatched ducklings and information as to their care
  • Seedlings of native oak trees

native black oak seedling

We have chosen to distribute native oak seedlings because native oak savanna is the most endangered habitat in the country. More than 95% of it has been destroyed since colonization. Second, because acorns can be a valuable staple food. Third, because planting native oak trees (and assisting in the northward migration of valuable non-native food trees) can help begin the transition to perennial food systems while both mitigating and preparing for global warming and biodiversity collapses (oaks are prized by wildlife and oak savanna is an extremely biodiverse habitat).

At the same time, we are also distributing political literature and engaging in (socially-distanced) conversations with our community members about these issues. Our goal is to strengthen and build local food systems, and also resistance networks  with radical analysis of the political situation.

Oregon is perhaps ahead of the curve. It’s a mostly rural state with a relatively small population. It has long been a hub for local food production, permaculture, and relocalization. These projects will be harder to implement in urban communities, and poverty compounds all the challenges. However, the skills to live  sustainably already exist. The barriers are time, funding, political education, and most importantly the will of the people. As the famous saying goes, only ourselves can free our minds. Free your mind and begin to build this new revolutionary transformation.

We hope to see this project replicated around the world. We take inspiration from the many people already engaged in this sort of work, especially those who combine ecological awareness, practical relocalization, and revolutionary resistance. Contact us for more information, to get involved, or to have a conversation about implementing similar projects in your community.

Max Wilbert is a third-generation political dissident, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been involved in grassroots organizing for nearly 20 years. His essays have been published in Earth Island Journal, Counterpunch, DGR News Service, and elsewhere, and have been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, and French. His second book, Bright Green Lies, is scheduled for release in 2021.

21 thoughts on “Can Permaculture Become a Revolutionary Force?”

  1. Is it really possible for the whole 7 billion of us to live in this way, growing our own food? I’d like to know, as it seems rather impracticable to me. To start with, industrial agriculture and fossil fuels are the terminally toxic gifts which drove our species to the numbers we constitute now. Sustainable permaculture sounds great but can it feed everyone without our returning to the periodic famines that blighted humanity through most of our history? Even the Old Testament’s accounts are loaded with references to widespread hunger, so this is not a recent phenomenon. Someone tell me it ain’t so.

  2. Well, if you have an alternative, do let us know. But it seems clear that a lot *more* people will starve without this kind of initiatives towards food sovereignty.

  3. Responding first to SRH, and then to Max:

    The elephant in the room that no futurist wants to address is the inescapable reality of this fact: PERMACULTURE IS NOT A PLAN TO SAVE 8 BILLION HUMANS. It is a plan to save the few who are willing and able to live through the mass die-off that is inevitable in this century, whether we bring down industrialism by revolution, or it topples under its own weight.

    “Planet of the Humans” beautifully illustrated one of the connected grim realities of this future, while only implying another.

    The illustration to which I refer is the graph representing population growth that was both allowed and caused by the Industrial Revolution. If we imagine walking up that incline, from the beginning of the Common Era to today, it would resemble a leisurely walk across a relatively flat meadow (circa 1 C.E. to 1750), stopping abruptly at an insurmounable, 20-story vertical wall (1750-2020 C.E.).

    The unspoken implication is that there are no assault ladders and grappling hooks to surmount this wall (and there are sure as hell no elevators), because the failure of both fossil fuels and “green energy” to power an industrial future means that our grandchildren’s tomorrow will be one without electricity, or any means of mechanized propulsion.

    When the trains and trucks and container ships that supply the industrial world today run into that wall, the supply chain that feeds, clothes, and houses 31,999 of every 32,000 humans today (the civilized-to-indigenous population ratio) collapses, and every community or neighborhood of 32,000 people would have one survivor. Permaculture is the non-industrial alternative that would allow a handful of others also to survive.

    Needless to say, this collision of civilization’s pipedream with a non-industrial future will not occur in real time, but will play out over a few decades. Minor attempts to generate electricity (imagine pedaling the manual generator that powers your remaining appliances of a laptop, a desk lamp, and a 200-watt space heater, in your 6’x10′ home of tomorrow) will continue indefinitely, along with countless family-farm attempts at grain production. But in general, a post-civilization future is one without electricity or grain.

    Imagine a life that synthesizes hunter-gatherer living with a village in 1700 New England, and you begin to get the picture. It is a world that feeds roughly a tenth of today’s population. The remaining 7,000,000,000 or so of us will die of starvation, disease, or in resource wars, over the intervening 10-150 years.

    Such is the corner that capitalist greed and ambition have painted us into. No one said it would be pretty, and even those New England villages may not make it. But if there is a long-term human future, such is its most likely nature.

  4. I think your pilot program is great. You are leading positively by example. I think one of the best ways to move away from industrialization is with our food choices. CAFO’s and their food sources need to be dismantled and grass-fed/pasture-raised needs to get our business, as well as farmers markets.

    Question everything! Looking at our own consumer choices and finding solutions wherever we can is empowering. Keep up the great work.

  5. Local food systems have been a structural component of my thinking and practice for more than 40 years but I do not respond well to the voluntary ignorance, lack of self awareness, aversion to creative thinking, egos and self entitlement which so often become interpersonal abusiveness.

    I tried to get the community garden to start a compost pile. The garden manager refused to return my phone calls and allow me access (the garden is locked due to theft) The garden will not allow the use of horse manure (literally tons is dumped at the nearby landfill) yet trucks in compost from a dairy farm 50 miles away. I’ve offered to teach classes (through the county) on gardening, composting, medicinal botany but have been told no because I don’t have a special piece of paper with an important signature on it and they are afraid of lawsuits. I’ve opened my orchard to free – you pick and been accused of some kind of scam when I handed the woman a bucket.

    People are not hungry enough and I lost any faith I had in the ability of the human race to adapt in a positive manner.

    So I’ll be over here in the corner with the veggies, the orchard and the Pinyon Pines. I’ll share what I’ve learned and sometimes grow more than I need but people are going to have to ask and they are going to have to fucking pick it themselves.

    But thank you for this article, Max. It has inspired me to pursue some ideas that have been brewing for a while. I would like to do more in my community but I don’t know what I can do that I have not already tried. I am no match for social inertia.

  6. @Suzanne
    Grass-fed beef is the most environmentally and ecologically destructive form of it. Beef is the most destructive food that people eat and should be banned. On one hand there is massive destruction of ecosystems like we have in the western U.S., where the grazing industry has caused more environmental and ecological harm to the west than any other industry. On the other hand are CAFO’s, monstrous pollution and animal torture facilities.

    There is no good way to do animal agriculture. Meat should be from wild animals, anything else is very harmful to the planet.

  7. @ SRH
    To expand on Mark’s answer to your question: Human population was limited to one billion people until industrialism provided artificial fertilizer, which produced a lot more food. Without industrial society, only about a billion people would have enough food to survive. One billion is still far too many ecologically speaking, but it’s only a little more than 1/8 of what we have now.

    So the short answer to your question is “no,” 7-8 billion people could not live by permaculture, at most one billion could because of no artificial fertilizer. As Mark and I continually point out, overpopulation is the most fundamental and therefore the biggest problem, and major population reduction, which would only occur through birth control and thus take a long time, must be factored into any solutions to environmental and ecological problems. Permaculture would be far less harmful than the totally destructive agriculture practiced today, but this is neither a panacea nor a final solution; it’s at best a step in the right direction.

  8. I don’t understand why DGR would support permaculture if the goal is to rid the planet of civilization. Agriculture in any form is the root of civilization, and permaculture would be no more than a small step in the right direction. Original agriculture 10-12,000 years ago was almost certainly permaculture, and look where that ended up.

    The ultimate goal here should be to return humans to a much smaller population living exclusively as hunter-gatherers. This is a very long-term goal and won’t happen overnight or even over a mere few centuries, but anything less is just continued human destruction of the natural world.

  9. Jeff,
    “Grass-fed beef is the most environmentally and ecologically destructive form of it.”

    Could you provide some more information or is this just your opinion? I am having a real hard time believing that grass fed/grass finished beef is worse for the environment than CAFOs. I have visited some nearby ranches that raise grass finished beef and I have had the misfortune of being in the vicinity of a CAFO.

    I have also spent a good deal of time on western rangelands and desert areas which are now home to square miles of energy production so I struggle with your statement that ” the grazing industry has caused more environmental and ecological harm to the west than any other industry.” Once again, additional information that supports your statements would be helpful.

    Also regarding permaculture: You claim that “original agriculture was almost certainly permaculture and look where that ended up” and I feel the need to ask what you define as “permaculture”. From what I have learned about the native people of California they did indeed moderate the natural environment to encourage habitat for the plants and animals which made up their diet. You may be interested in the book Tending The Wild by M Kat Anderson.

    I get the feeling you have stated a lot of opinions here. It would be helpful if you owned them as opinions rather than presenting them as statements that might appear to be factual to a casual thinker. Or – as I have already stated – some supporting information would be helpful. But in any case – isn’t a small step that we can do right now better than standing still?

  10. @Heidi Hall
    I don’t know where you live or how much traveling you’ve done. I live in the west and I’ve been in every intermountain western state multiple times. Cattle are everywhere! As I’ve said, in a nutshell they’ve turned the entire U.S. western grasslands into deserts, which is a level of ecosystem destruction not even approached by any other industry. It’s not just cattle grazing per se, it’s also ranchers fencing land, killing predators and native ungulates, and replacing native plants with grasses for their cattle, etc. Read the two books I cited if you want detailed information.

    As to CAFOs, they only occupy a very small fraction of the land that cattle grazing does. As to other industries, same. Certainly if other industrial industries like “energy” were to occupy the same amount of land as is used for grazing, the harms would be greater. But industries like that have a tiny footprint in the west compared to the grazing industry.

    As to your visits to the western rangelands, are you familiar with what they looked like before cattle? Again, read the books I cited and you’ll see quite clearly how much damage cattle do in the west, comparing land grazed by only native ungulates like deer & elk with land grazed by cattle. Cattle are a problem everywhere because they’re non-native domestic animals, but they’re a much bigger problem in the arid west with its horizontal root grasses that can’t take heavy grazing pressure than they are east of the Rocky Mountains. And in other countries, tropical rainforests are being destroyed in order to graze cattle.

    Other than not having children, I can’t think of a better thing to do for the Earth than to eschew beef (maybe giving up driving). This food is pure evil in so many ways I’m not going to even bother listing them, but you can certainly learn that list if you’re truly interested and willing to do some reading on the subject FROM CREDIBLE SOURCES, which means not rancher or pro-rancher propaganda.

    Your “feeling” that I stated opinions instead of facts is caused by the fact that you don’t like what the facts show, namely that the beef that you like so much is so harmful to the natural environment. It’s the same reaction that global warming/climate change deniers have when they’re told that their lifestyles are causing the problem. As I’ve heard scientists say, physics and natural laws don’t care whether you like them, they exist nonetheless. We all have the same negative reactions when we’re told that our behaviors and/or things we like are causing serious harms. What we need to do in that instance is examine the facts and, if correct, change our attitudes and behaviors. I’ve had to go through this too — I used to be a truck driver, but after trying to come to terms with the environmental harms driving causes for years, I finally gave it up because it was in complete contradiction to my opposition to industrial society.

    Hopefully you were honestly questioning what I said and not cynically shilling for the beef and/or grazing industries. If you were, I strongly encourage you to read at least one of those books, it will really open your eyes on this issue.

  11. As far as I’m aware, DGR defines agriculture as annual monocrops. Is that accurate?

    If it is, then permaculture doesn’t qualify as agriculture under DGR’s definition.

  12. @I.
    Permaculture is a type of agriculture, the latter being planting food crops as opposed to just gathering whatever native plants grow wild. To define permaculture otherwise in order to make a pro-permaculture argument is sophistry.

  13. Jesus Christ dude you don’t speak for DGR. Can you stfu for 5 seconds, wait for the answer, and send your quibbles directly to them?

  14. @I.
    It doesn’t matter how DGR or anyone else chooses to define “agriculture,” and that was my point. There’s no way to have a conversation, let alone a discussion, if everyone doesn’t agree to the accepted definitions of words. People don’t get to just create their own definitions. Or are you one of the brainwashed who think that everything is an opinion and there are no facts?

  15. Jeff,
    I live in and have traveled throughout the West for more than 60 years and I am not at all surprised by your response. It seems that whenever I disagree with anyone from a vegan to the Bundy Bunch I am accused of “shilling” for someone. I’ve been a woman all my life and am unfortunately well acquainted with the assumption that I am unable to think and voice my own thoughts.

    But this: “Your “feeling” that I stated opinions instead of facts is caused by the fact that you don’t like what the facts show, namely that the beef that you like so much is so harmful to the natural environment.” is puzzling.

    I do not like beef so it is not a fucking fact. Putting words in someone else’s mouth and trying to force them to defend a point they did not make is hostile, argumentative, unnecessary, unproductive, controlling and abusive. The rest of that paragraph would be insulting if it were not so self- aggrandizing . That kind of shit makes me laugh.

    Oh yeah – you mention two books but I have read your posts several times and cannot find any citations from any books or any mention of books at all – which is why I attempted to engage you in a discussion. I genuinely wanted to know where you got your information.

    And this:”It doesn’t matter how DGR or anyone else chooses to define “agriculture,” and that was my point. There’s no way to have a conversation, let alone a discussion, if everyone doesn’t agree to the accepted definitions of words. People don’t get to just create their own definitions.” is almost funny. It seems you want to spit assumptions and arguments at anyone who will not adopt the definitions you have in mind. Or in other words – the “sophistry” statement is a hilariously fine example of psychological projection.

    I think you are simply missing the point. If you would listen rather than attempt to impose your views you might be able to see both the differences and the similarities between what you want to impose and what people actually think. Discussion is impossible when you assume rather than ask.

    P.S. – I still suggest you read Tending The Wild. I also suggest you read The Vegetarian Myth.

  16. Jeff,
    While The Vegetarian Myth is a fine book the book I was thinking of is, I believe, The Omnivore’s Dilemma – specifically the part about a place called Polyface Farm.

  17. @Heidi Hall
    Sorry, I must have confused this discussion with another one. The books are Sacred Cows at the Public Trough by Nancy & Denzel Ferguson and Welfare Ranching by George Wuerthner.

    And BTW, I’m neither vegetarian nor vegan, so it looks like we both made false assumptions about each other. But I only eat meat about once every week or two, and I restrict that to wild meat, mostly fish & seafood. Farmed meat is extremely environmentally & ecologically harmful, is bad for the animals, doesn’t have much flavor, and isn’t as healthy as wild meat.

    I stand by what I said about defining words and terms, and you didn’t respond to that except hurl insults based on false assumptions that amount to YOU projecting your personality onto me. There is an accepted definition of agriculture, and it means humans planting things, mainly to eat. How they plant them is another issue. It’s not about MY definition, it’s about THE definition.

  18. Jeff,

    re:”And BTW, I’m neither vegetarian nor vegan, so it looks like we both made false assumptions about each other. ”

    I did not assume you were, nor did I state that you were, a vegan or vegetarian therefore I did not make a false assumption. Once again you have put words in my mouth. Control, abuse, etc – The rest of your words are therefore nothing more than meaningless drivel.

    I’ve read Welfare Ranching. I still think you are missing the point. And you really need to work on your reading and language skills. You seem to see a lot of words that no one else does – especially words that piss you off. Or in other words – you are essentially arguing with yourself. I’ll leave you to it.

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