Hannah Moloney, co-founder and co-director of Good Life Permaculture, was in the pursuit of a duck on the run when I arrived at her property on a fine summer evening. The duck had wandered into the chicken enclosure, and Hannah’s intention was to manoeuvre the duck away from the chickens. I promptly joined in from the other end of the enclosure and managed to guide the duck into the safe hands of Hannah waiting at the other side. Minding ducks (and chickens), as I later learned in my discussion with Hannah and her life and business partner Anton Vikstrom, was not a distraction, but indeed part of their work profile for their social business, Good Life Permaculture, and accorded them much satisfaction. The salience of this comment was not lost given the nature of their integrated work space, which is made up of a thriving food garden bursting with life, green spaces, their highly functional home, and home-office, all with an uninterrupted view over much of Hobart (Figure 1), the capital city of Tasmania, Australia’s southern island state.
What prompted Hannah and Anton to create (and sustain) this small piece of paradise in an urban block? Why Good Life Permaculture? What is a ‘good life’? And how does Good Life Permaculture interpret and respond to this ageless question, one that is as pertinent today as it was when put forth by Socrates in the Western tradition and Thiruvalluvar in the Eastern tradition?
Good Life Permaculture – Origins, Values & Objectives
Good Life Permaculture (henceforth referred to as ‘Good Life’) was born in early 2013 after about four years of conception and design by Hannah and Anton. With a ‘good life’ as the mission, the initiative’s vision is to achieve ‘absolute sustainability’ (discussed below), based around the values of ‘radical homemaking’ and the main strategic goal to “place our home and community at the core of everything we do in order to create what we feel is a good life.”1 This goal is expanded further into the following five business objectives:
- We design: We create permaculture designs for people’s homes, community spaces, schools systems and more.
- We teach: We share what we know with others to support them to live abundant, enjoyable and meaningful lives.
- We work with our community: To create and implement projects all about living well, sustainability and growing food.
- We live it: There is no separation between our work and lives. We are developing our home (slowly) as a demonstration of what’s possible on an urban block.
- We are always learning: We are firm believers in life-long learning and continuously seek opportunities to expand our skills, knowledge and ability to grow, inside and out.
Hannah and Anton acknowledge that the business idea behind Good Life was a long-time coming, and a natural outcome of more than a decade of exploring various work opportunities and study. Part of the initial drive came when Anton realized that his previous work was draining rather than nourishing. This led both Anton and Hannah to seek alternatives that integrated all aspects of sustainability within a viable business model. For them sustainability refers to the harmony or balance between human well-being and the ability of the environment to sustain it across space and time. Their search for sustainability was guided by their undergraduate studies in environmental science and later research in permaculture design. The study of permaculture proved to be particularly inspiring and shaped their overall vision for ‘absolute sustainability,’ which was to be later translated into the main business objectives for Good Life. On its website, Good Life quotes Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture (an approach developed in Tasmania in the 1970s and now a global movement):
“Permaculture is a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things.”2
Permaculture shares common values with organic and natural farming methods, but goes beyond food production to embrace holistic care for the Earth. It also holds as its core value the caring for people who produce and share food. In doing so, permaculture integrates all the ultimate ends, or ultimate human needs, within its design, including food, shelter, energy, ethics, climate, water, and soil.3,4 Taking this to heart, Anton concluded that the solution to avoid being drained by work was to re-define work in a way that builds and sustains a basic connection to home, community, and family. This was framed as an integrated livelihood that involved ‘radical homemaking’, creating and managing a home that incorporates all aspects of permaculture design, as well as the use of the home as a center for social and economic activity.5 For Good Life then, absolute sustainability becomes synonymous with radical homemaking, and re-embracing the home and local economy, or simply living by one’s values.
Building a Business Structure on Permaculture Principles
The core values of Good Life drive its business structures, which have been designed in harmony with local natural processes. This approach ensures that even the physical structures the business depends on follow natural processes (mimicking nature), thus providing a sustainable alternative to technologically-driven infrastructure.6 To reduce external costs and maintenance, particular attention is given to all aspects of the physical design, incorporating a wide variety of optimally placed functional elements (Figure 2). For example, given the southern temperate climate of Hobart, parts of the garden and the house are positioned to receive the maximum amount of sun available during the shorter days in winter. This helps both increase productivity and reduce external energy supplements, which come at a cost to business.
Key aspects involved in creating the physical structures include attention to energy flows, water retention, conversion of all waste streams into resources, and careful selection and placement of the functional elements (Figure 2). The sun is the main energy source for both growing food and producing electricity through solar panels. Design primarily focuses on improving efficient use of direct sunlight (passive solar design such as large double-glazed windows) and supplementing through power generated by solar panels and mains grid supply as required. Undesirable energy flows can be stymied through design, such as windbreaks provided by trees against the cold westerly winds.
Water is another key resource, and the design aims to retain water through creating a suitable topography and collection points (e.g. rain water harvested for household and office use). Waste management follows the principle of closed loop production, where all streams of waste from the business are re-circulated back as raw materials. Food and farm waste is composted and becomes a healthy growing medium for fresh production. Chicken manure becomes a valuable resource to improve soil fertility. Animals such as chickens and ducks provide other important services, such as pest control, as well as being amusing company.
People and homemaking are often at the centre of permaculture, which is one of its key points of difference to other organic farming methods. The home for Good Life is a renovated 90-year-old weatherboard house nestled amidst a thriving 900 square metres of cultivable land (Figure 2). It offers an integrated living space for Hannah and Anton where they can pursue both leisure and work, across all of their business objectives. A well-appointed indoor office space with an expansive view over Hobart offers an inspiring location for contemplation, planning and design work. The cultivable land, besides producing food, offers a test-bed for research, learning and demonstration.
Hannah and Anton share the responsibilities and work flexible hours. They also maintain a part-time outside employment with an organization that shares similar objectives towards sustainability. This has helped obtain the necessary capital to fully establish Good Life and also to pursue shared objectives related to sustainability. The daily workload is spread out across three main areas of on-ground, online, and planning. The on-ground work involves daily maintenance of the garden, home, and office. Also classified as on-ground work is providing design consultancy services and running courses and events. The online work involves updating the website and the Facebook page. The planning work involves organizing courses and events to generate future income, advance the business profile, and widen its network. Aspects of the daily labour is sometimes shared with contractors such as fellow teachers, artists (for designing promotional material), and landscapers and builders.
While the profile of the daily labour is more well defined, the routine is flexible and depends on variables such as the daily weather, harvesting and planting times, and obligations relating to courses and events. These arrangements serve to provide a healthy diversity (or novelty) in work and maintain the level of gumption needed to sustain the business. Anton appreciates the balance between physical and mental labour that his job profile provides him, as well as the associated health benefits for both body and soul.
Business Outputs – Monetary & Non-monetary
Since its inception, Hannah and Anton have been able to see both monetary and non-monetary outputs from Good Life. Most recently, as a testament to their commitment and success, Good Life has expanded its urban farming property to cover nearly 3000 square meters through the purchase of a neighbouring block of land. The nature of their business, however, renders it challenging, and perhaps meaningless, to accurately quantify all outputs as many are mixed and intangible in nature. From a clearly monetary point of view, Good Life is currently over halfway in generating the annual income that Hannah and Anton consider reasonable (in light of their core values and other non-monetary benefits) and necessary (for capital needs in a society where money is the dominant medium of exchange).
Above all, their key priority is to reach full potential by creating a more favourable policy environment for their type of businesses. Indeed, current policy and institutional structures are not developed with urban farming in mind and, as a consequence, do not offer the best environment for businesses such as Good Life to take root and flourish.7 The establishment of Good Life, for example, had to overcome difficulties in breaking new ground for urban land use and planning policy in Hobart. Thus one favourable business output for Good Life was to create awareness and develop institutional space for local government to understand the importance of urban farming, making it considerably easier for future urban farms to take root.
As perhaps the most promising business outcome, Good Life has emerged as a regional centre for education and outreach in permaculture design and urban farming. Both introductory and higher level courses are offered in permaculture design and several other workshops organized on various aspects of urban farming. This includes a two-week international course delivered by Hannah for remote farmers in the Solomon Islands, which is supported by a non-governmental organization.
Good Life has also steadily transformed their property from a disused urban block of land into a thriving urban farm. Through the process of engaging in active food production and experimentation (research and development), Good Life serves as a ‘proof of concept’ that has been brought to bear both in their education and outreach activities, and also in offering customized permaculture design solutions. In addition, produce from the farm provides for most of the household needs, both in fresh and preserved forms, with the remainder shared and sold locally.
From a broader sustainability perspective, the business model of Good Life is such that the fruits of the daily labour of Hannah and Anton also nourish the wider community and the environment. Their urban farm is designed to: reduce the need for external energy inputs due to transport, transmission, and handling costs and their associated carbon emissions and ecological footprint; retain water and soil from storm water run-off and contamination of receiving waterways; absorb heat and ameliorate the urban heat island effect while also reducing air pollution; remove solid waste from entering the public waste stream and becoming a social liability (and taxing the public purse), thanks to closed loop production; promote biodiversity both above and below the ground; provides the psychological benefits associated with green spaces; and, provides organic produce improving local food access and options.8
Future of Good Life Permaculture
The future of Good Life depends on its capacity to bolster and maintain functional resilience, i.e. the ability of the business to sustain its essential functions and maintain the flow of outputs into the future while managing potential risks from both within and outside the system. Risks from within may arise when either Hannah or Anton are unable to fulfil their daily labour for a variety of reasons (e.g. illness), especially with a now larger urban farm to manage. Risks from the outside can range from bushfires to economic downturns or a less friendly local administration. Insurance against these shocks have to be built into business structures, along with the ability to remain open and flexible to changes. Hannah and Anton are conscious of these considerations and have endeavoured to address them through effective system design that secures most of their business outputs (i.e. achieve functional resilience, Figure 3). A key mechanism for Good Life to achieve resilience is by incorporating functional diversity within their business structures (i.e. through enabling diverse income streams) and a commitment towards adaptation of their structure to the evolving ecological, economic, and social factors.
Hannah and Anton further recognize that the long-term future of their business depends on building an ecosystem of similar initiatives rather than pursue vertical growth for their own business. Unlike conventional companies, Good Life’s approach to ‘growth’ is horizontal, that is, defined by collaboration rather than competition and contributing towards ‘absolute sustainability’ based on a cooperative, innovative and entrepreneurial model inspired by nature (Figure 3).9 This is the reason why Hannah and Anton are actively involved with local, regional, and national networks of like-minded initiatives working towards empowering people with the capacity and skills needed to establish similar business enterprises.
Is Good Life a Viable and Scalable Business Model?
The business model of Good Life is based around homemaking, urban farming, and skills sharing. It was borne out of the imagination and core values of a young couple who wanted to create their own niche within the current socio-economic structures and be functionally resilient in all possible ways. But does Good Life provide a viable business model, one that is scalable both within and outside of Australia? Is it possible for like-minded people in Bangalore, India, to seek a Good Life in the path laid down by Hannah and Anton? The answer is complex, multidimensional, and highly contextual. However, a few general principles can be drawn out of the case study of Good Life that may act as a guide to developing a viable business model beyond ‘tinkering at the margin of the status quo’11:
- Sustainability speaks to the core of what a business is all about and cannot simply be an add-on (i.e. sustainability is an emergent property through core values translating to business objectives, structures, processes, and outcomes);
- Sustainability is consistent with maintaining the functional resilience of business (i.e. there need be no conflict between sustainability – a public good – and economic advantage – a private good);
- Functional resilience is achievable through effective system design (i.e. by working with nature, caring for people, and rethinking the role of technology);
- Effective system design must involve functional diversity (i.e. enabling diverse income streams – redundant means for the same ends); and,
- Commitment to the ongoing adaptation to changes in external factors is necessary, not only through continuous learning, but through living the learning (i.e. “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing”12).
The long-term viability of a business model based on the above principles is dependent on overcoming several of the contradictions inherent within the dominant economic system.13 Importantly, the focus on ecosystem-building completely changes the perspective on ‘scale’: from a vertical process inherent to the single business to a horizontal dynamic built on collaboration across small but integrated activities. Most importantly, Good Life, through its focus on radical homemaking and re-embracing the home and local economy, has essentially overcome perhaps the most dangerous contradiction of universal alienation, about which geographer David Harvey notes:
“[T]he worker is estranged from his or her product as well as from other workers, from nature and all other aspects of social life during the time of the labour contract and usually beyond (given the exhausting nature of the work). The deprivation and dispossession are experienced and internalised as a sense of loss and sorrow at the frustration of the worker’s own creative instincts.”
It was this closely held value of being able to exercise one’s creative instincts and not be alienated from the product of labour, other workers, nature and the community, that had brought Good Life into existence.
With a majority of the world’s working population reportedly dissatisfied and alienated from their work (as quantified by opinion pollster Gallup14 and discussed, among others, by anthropologist David Graeber15), there is a palpable demand for adapting aspects of the Good Life story: be it through improving the use values derived from one’s home, or reducing the role that formal economic exchanges (mediated by money) play in one’s life, or just enjoying individual liberties and freedom associated with creativity and novelty in daily labor.13
There are indeed promising signs emerging across the world based around regional food systems and other social goods (e.g. travel and recreation) being the focal point for emerging local businesses with a range of backyard (including rooftop and vertical) gardens, community gardens (using the co-operative model), and farmers markets.16 As a notable example of recognition, the World Bank reported in 2013 that:
“The role and importance of urban agriculture will likely increase with urbanization and climate change, so the integration of urban agriculture into development strategies and policy decisions would be important for long-term sustainability.”17
Good Life is at the fore front of this change in Tasmania, as Hannah and Anton believe that “a re-skilling revolution needs to happen in order to restore our capacity to live awesomely and sustainably.”18 Their primary emphasis on teaching, to “share what [they] know with others to support them to live abundant, enjoyable, and meaningful lives,”1 underscores the take-away message that the Good Life is one that is shared, with both people and the planet.
- Good Life Permacultre, About [online] (2017). https://goodlifepermaculture.com.au/about/.
- Good Life Permacultre, Permaculture Defined [online] (2017). https://goodlifepermaculture.com.au/whats-permaculture/.
- Meadows, DH. Indicators and information systems for sustainable development (The Sustainability Institute, Vermont, 1998).
- What is Permaculture? Permaculture Principles [online] (2017) www.permacultureprinciples.com.
- Hayes, S. Radical homemakers: Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture. (Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont, 2010).
- Jordan, CF. Working with nature: resource management for sustainability (Routledge, New York, 1999).
- Thibert, J. Making local planning work for urban agriculture in the North American context: a view from the ground. Journal of Planning Education and Research 32: 349-357 (2012).
- Gittleman, J. The role of urban agriculture in environmental and social sustainability: a case study on Boston, Massachusetts. (Tufts University Digital Library, Boston, 2009).
- Anielski, M. The economics of happiness: Building genuine wealth (New Society Publishers, Canada, 2009).
- Maani, K & Cavana, RY. Systems thinking, System dynamics: Managing Change and Complexity, 2nd edition (Prentice Hall, Auckland, 2007).
- Orr, D. Living and Breathing in a ‘Black Swan’ World. The Solutions Journal 5: 31-37 (2014).
- Maturana, HR & Varela, FJ. The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding (Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1987).
- Harvey, D. Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism (Profile, London, 2014).
- Crabtree, S. Worldwide, 13% of employees are engaged at work. Gallup (2013).
- Graeber, D. On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Strike! Magazine (Summer 2013).
- Hopkins, R. The power of just doing stuff: How local action can change the world. (Croydon: Transition Books, 2013).
- World Bank. Urban agriculture: findings from four city case studies. Urban development series; knowledge papers no. 18 (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2013).
- Good Life Permaculture, Teaching Team [online] (2017). http://goodlifepermaculture.com.au/about/teaching-team/.