Can changing habits for self-reliance and resilience help society avoid the worst of unfortunate futures?

September 15, 2020

Our release of chapter 25 from RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future as a free downloadable pdf is another small gesture to spread positive messages in a time of pandemic. This is especially so for all those locked down in Melbourne, the geographic focus of the book and our further efforts to stimulate a wider retrosuburban response in the wake of the pandemic.

While our primary appeal is to people already voting with their feet to retrofit their own lives, not having these strategies recognised, let alone debated, in the mainstream media continues to act as a break on their wider adoption. Even the much-vaunted capacities of social media to allow communities of interest to share and adapt their activities are increasingly constrained by corporate and other powerful interests’ ability to manage and manipulate the proliferation of content through social media platforms.

A lesser recognised constraint is the dearth of academic investigation of options for more radical behaviour change. It is still true that most ideas to change society get a good working over in academia and policy think tanks before they surface in the mainstream media. For example, mainstream media discussion of the concept of “degrowth” is recent and introductory, even if the academic discourse and activism in this field has been intense for nearly twenty years.

Permaculture was unusual in the way it burst into public consciousness after very little exploration in academia. Research and investigation into the logic behind permaculture strategies has always been sparse, but in recent years we are starting to see increasing recognition that permaculture (including retrosuburbia) is more than a fringe green lifestyle choice. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary is the first academic book to recognise the critical nature of retrosuburbia and kindred strategies in dealing with the Limits to Growth crisis.

Samuel Alexander and Josh Floyd’s recent paper “The political economy of deep decarbonization: Tradable Energy Quotas for energy descent futures” published in the academic research journal Energies, focuses on policy options for dealing with likely futures that are still well beyond the scope of any media recognition. The TEQ concept developed by the late David Fleming could allow society to “power down” rather than just hoping that the much heralded, but still barely begun, 100% transition to renewable energy will allow industrial civilization to continue on a path of growth and increasing complexity.

Alexander and Floyd use Joseph Tainter’s theory of the development and collapse of complex civilizations as a framework to show how voluntary simplification of the economic and organisational structures of society has the potential to chart a degrowth pathway, as an alternative to chaotic and damaging decay and collapse in the face of a reduction in the energy supply essential to sustain complexity.

Such academic discussion of policy options is still at the margins, and it is probably too late to build the conceptual capacity, let alone the political will, to avoid the historic pathway of dysfunctional energy descent that Tainter observed with past civilizations. At the very least this, and similar works, help confirm that retrosuburbia, and permaculture more generally, are much more than lifestyle choices or personal preparations for hard times.

Retrosuburbia provides the patterns and models that need to be replicated across our residential heartlands to achieve a scale of impact. By replacing a fair slab of the current household consumption activity (currently about 55% of GDP in Australia) with downsized and much more efficient ways to provide basic needs in the household and community non-monetary economies, society could radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond the 8% reductions resulting from the pandemic.

Of course the other half of the Australian economy is dominated by unsustainable resource extraction, most notably, coal, gas and iron for export. But when pointing the finger at the corporations digging and shipping our non-renewable resources, many Australians forget that those exports provide the balance of trade to pay for our consumption of new mobile phones, and cars, whether they burn fossil fuel (mostly imported), or are recharged by renewable energy from turbines and panels, which are also imported.

Tradable Energy Quotas issued free to all adult citizens would require high consumers to pay for their damaging consumption more effectively than a carbon tax, while simultaneously rewarding those whose consumption was minimal. All businesses, organisations and government would have to buy their rights to consume. Reduction in the quota each year in line with the carbon budget and/or the depletion in total energy, would force the much-needed powering down of the production/consumption cycle of globalised capitalism.

Among other effects, this would reward the employment of labour and skill over capital, resource extraction and pollution. While I believe such policies could sustain the annual falls in resource consumption and carbon emissions we have already seen from the pandemic, while at the same time equitably improving quality of life for the majority, the chances of such policies being publicly debated, let alone adopted, seem very slim.

Whatever the chances for progressive policies, what we know for sure is that we need the spontaneous, organic evolution of our own household and community-level non-monetary economies. This enlightened self-interest simultaneously builds resilience and solidarity to unfolding shocks from any quarter, and acts as a consumer strike against corporate-dominated monetary economies of bloated production and consumption that economists, politicians and the media call “The Economy.”

While many environmental activists see this focus on the household and community level as a weak compensatory response to our collective failure to capture control of the levers of policy power, I see it as the essential precursor to any larger scale policy-driven change to reorganise the more complex structures of centralised monetary economy.

From years of practise by the pioneers, retrosuburban strategies powered by permaculture ethics and design principles can make our household economies far more complex (and resource consuming) than default consumer living funded by full time work in the monetary economy. However in doing so, we displace demand for mind bogglingly complex and resource-consuming systems of finance, regulation, production, distribution and promotion that currently provide most people’s basic needs.

The voluntary simplification of economic and social systems that Alexander and Floyd identify as so essential requires that we replace mindless consumption with mindful permaculture productivity at home. Changing our habits for self-reliance and resilience requires us to skill up, get in touch with our sources of sustenance and help the next generation find what they need to survive and thrive in challenging futures.

My guess is that 50% of the growth in GDP over my lifetime has resulted from simply pushing economic activity out of our household and community non-monetary economies. For example, as workers started to buy rather than bring lunch from home, GDP rose, although no more lunches had been created – the process of making lunch had simply become monetised.

So if it is better for ourselves, society and the planet to move at least some of that activity back into the non-monetary economy, then we can do so and call it “Growth”! Consequently, I can claim to be “pro-Growth”, a much easier sell, than explaining the nature of Degrowth, an unfortunate term in English, even if it is more attractive in French (Décroissance).

In the process, we might just generate enough BDP (Benign Domestic Product) to replace GDP as a measure of how we are powering down for a safe landing (on Planet A).

David Holmgren
Spring, 2020

Top photo: Albany wind farm, WA, Australia. By maveriqk (2008). VIa Wikimedia Commons,_WA,_Australia_-_panoramio_-_maveriqk.jpg

Center photo from lunchwithsu (aka Su Dennet ):

David Holmgren

David Holmgren is best known as the co-originator of the permaculture concept. He lives with his partner Su Dennett at Melliodora, their permaculture demonstration site in Hepburn, Central Victoria.

Tags: permaculture