Tagore, Permaculture and Mollison

About a week ago, I began writing a blog post entitled ‘Tagore, Permaculture, Zizĕk and Elysium’, but I struggled to get past what to me is an easy connection to make: between Tagore and permaculture.

One of the leaders of permaculture in Britain said recently that our task is to ‘re-design Britain along permaculture lines!’ To me that’s a political statement, and I’m interested in bringing permaculture out as a politics – not a Party politics, obviously (though hostility would be non-PC), but a cooperative anarchism.

Tagore wanted to take India in a permaculture direction: rich, vibrant village life, not disdaining modern science and technology, but using it selectively where it’s beneficial but ‘not for the greed of profit’. He advocated ‘unity in diversity’ – and every local solution is likely to be different.

We don’t have to find the local solutions equally congenial – so we wouldn’t be working towards an agreed design for Britain – or any other country – or indeed the world. Permaculture would provide the design tools, and evidence that the permaculture way is do-able. We would encourage local permaculture designs to include their ‘descent action plans’ to become independent of all the grids, including the internet eventually because it’s obvious already that it’s not sustainable.

To gain support and understanding for permaculture as a politics we need a generic definition. The one I’ve been using is ‘local self-reliance and cooperative self-help – with an emphasis on food growing’. This is easy to understand and is better term than ‘relocalisation’ which gets confused with the Tories’ ‘Localism’. Let’s call all these initiatives ‘permaculture’, and if that’s controversial, and gets discussion going, all the better. I’m fed up with hearing ‘I know about/ approve of/ practice permaculture but I don’t call it that because it’s unhelpful, a turn-off…’

Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture, who coined the term, has said that permaculture is ‘a quiet revolution’, but that permaculture is anti-political, having no room for politicians or administrators or priests, and no laws either. (http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/mollison.html [22/9/13]) Tagore disdained officialdom and laws too. But there are many kinds of politics, and in Chapter 14 ‘Strategies for an Alternative Nation’ of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Washington, D.C., Island Press, 1990) pp.506-559, there is an implied politics behind the detail. Here is an extract:

First we must learn to grow, build, and manage natural systems for human and earth needs, and then teach others to do so. In this way, we can build a global, interdependent, and cooperative body of people involved in ethical land and resource use, whose teaching is founded on research but is also locally available everywhere, and locally demonstrable in many thousands of small enterprises covering the whole range of human endeavours, from primary production to quaternary system management; from domestic nutrition and economy to a global network of small financial systems. Such work is urgent, important, and necessary, and we cannot leave it to the whims of government (always short-term) or industry as we know it today.

We know how to solve every food, clean energy, and sensible shelter problem in every climate; we have already invented and tested every necessary technique and technical device, and have access to all the biological material that we could ever use.

The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy, and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.

Thus, the very first strategies we need are those that put our own house in order, and at the same time do not give credibility to distant power-centred or unethical systems. In our present fiscal or money-run world, the primary responsibility that we need to take charge of is our wealth, which is the product of our sweat and our region, not representable by valueless currency.

There is no need to stress that we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world; “Do not adjust your vision, reality is at fault” (graffiti), so that many strategies given here are starting points rather than endpoints. However, there is so much damage to ecosystems—hence so much rehabilitative work to do—that we will be employed in good works for a few generations to come. In several generations (if we are allowed this time) we may have achieved a truly free world of international affinities, but we always start where we are.


A people without an agreed-upon common basis to their actions is neither a community nor a nation. A people with a common ethic is a nation wherever they live. Thus, the place of habitation is secondary to a shared belief in the establishment of an harmonious world community. Just as we can select a global range of plants for a garden, we can select from all extant ethics and beliefs those elements that we see to be sustainable, useful, and beneficial to life and to our community. It would appear that:

Sustainable societies emphasise the duties and responsibilities of people to nature equal to those of people to people; that any code relates equally to other lifeforms and elements of landscape. To conduct oneself only in terms of response to other people gives a potential to evade responsibility for damage inflicted on the total resource base, and thus ultimately to others.

Beneficial behaviour involves managing natural systems for their own, and our, long-term benefit, not for our immediate and exploitative personal gain. The American Indians (Iroquois nation) frame this as a “seventh generation” concept: that our decisions now are carried out in terms of their benefit or disadvantage to our descendants in seven generations’ time (about 100 years ahead). This helps explain why we always found tribally managed lands to be rich in natural life resources, and why we have managed to ruin much of the resources we inherited.

As people, we need to adopt an ethic of right livelihood, for if we bend our labour and skills to work that is destructive, we are the destroyers. We lay waste to our lives in proportion to the way in which the systems we support lay waste to the environment. Although societies for social responsibility are rapidly forming, we need to expand the concept to social and environmental responsibility, and to create our own financial and employment strategies in those areas. We should not be passive workers for established destructive systems, but rather we can be investors in life. We cannot profess or teach one ethic, and live another, without damage to ourselves and to common resources.

We must always study and learn as part of a total integrated system framework, conscious of how our knowledge and actions permeate all systems. It is in the fragmenting of knowledge into unrelated disciplines that we can plead ignorance of effects; but we are always responsible for the distant effects of our actions, and in fact should work for foreseen benefits.

We need to develop conserver societies, with this conservation achieved by close attention to recycling, the avoidance of waste, and to very durable technologies so that their use is prolonged. Similarly, it is unwise to abandon satisfactory older forms of technology even if we install improved forms and processes; just because we develop a new windmill for electricity, we should not allow a dependable older grain mill to sink into disrepair. Because we can use a forage harvester, it doesn’t mean we should lose the skill to use a scythe on steep slopes.

Part of being conservative is to concentrate on developing a mosaic of small, well-managed, and effective systems. Such modest systems are unlikely to cause widespread upheavals or to be subject to external or unethical control.

Meaning in life is lost by striving after status and future glory; it is gained and realised by action towards a common ideal, in serving the whole according to our physical, mental, educational, and revelationary (understanding) capacities. It is never enough to mean well (“fair words plant no cabbages”),rather, it is necessary to ensure that it gets done.

Security can be found in the renunciation of ownership over people, money, and real assets; insecurity and unhappiness arises as a result of trying to gain, keep or protect that which others need for periods of legitimate access. A lending library enables people to help themselves to information; a locked-up book collection is useful only to the person who owns it.

If an ethical and responsible community can establish a durable, dependable, and waste-free resource base, then leisure time (time to express our individual capacities) becomes a plentiful resource. We will have gained time for life. While leisure is inevitably available for enrichment of cultural life, and to an extent for recreation, emphasis on spectator recreation is just another way to waste the time gained; we then see the professionalisation of arts, sciences, sport, and even education as spectators replace actors.

We should therefore resolve to gain time to evolve ever more effective ways to assist systems or people. It is only when others feel secure that we need not guard our environments, so that the very best preparation for security is to teach others the strategies, ethics, and practices of resource management, and to extend aid and education wherever possible.

I do not, in my lifetime, or that of my children’s children, foresee a world where there are no eroded soils, stripped forests, famine, or poverty, but I do see a way in which we can spend our lives towards earth repair. If and when the whole world is secure, we have won a right to explore space, and the oceans. Until we have demonstrated that we can establish a productive and secure earth society, we do not belong anywhere else, nor (I suspect) would we be welcome elsewhere.


The “United Nations” today is neither united nor represents nations; it is like the oft-quoted “moral majority” , which is also neither of those things! Many true nations, such as the Iroquois confederation or any tribal alliance with a common ethic, are not represented by such a body, nor are whole nations such as the Basques, Tartars, Kurds, Palestinians, Hawaiians, Hopi, Tibetans, Pitjatjantjara, Misquito, Aranda, Basarwa, Herrero etc etc etc.

Most nations in the United Nations repress a majority of peoples on earth. Talking with Thomas Banyaca, a Hopi messenger of his people, it became clear to me that we need a new concept of “nation”, and a new representative body to speak for them. We start by defining a nation as a people subscribing to a common ethic, and aspiring to a similar culture. Such nations may not have a common land base, or language, but do have a common ethic, minimally;

To care for the earth; to repair and conserve;
To seek peace, and to guard human rights everywhere; and
To invest all capital, intelligence, goodwill, and labour to these ends.

At present, many thousands of organisations, affinities, tribes, bioregions, and spiritual and non-government organisations aspire to such beneficial ends; in every continent, a majority of people –the ethical majority – want peace; a clean and forested earth; a cessation to torture, malnutrition, and oppression; and a right to work towards these ends.

It would take very little additional organisation for these groups to meet together, count their numbers, and recognise each other’s rights. There are, for instance, far less paid-up or active members of political parties or oppressive societies now than there are organic gardeners whose life works seek peace and plenty. As groups discuss, and accept, the minimal ethic above; they can quickly proceed to recognise each other.

Such initiatives have in fact commenced in the Amerindian groups subject to national (i.e. political) oppression in both North and South America. Throughout the world, groups are talking of issuing their own passports, or adopting world citizen status- given a common aim. Perhaps the first move to a new body of nations united in earth care are the bioregional and tribal congresses that are occurring today.

Unlike the present United Nations, we do not need a world centre, or paid administrators, but can instead meet as affinity groups (e.g. in alternative economic summits, bioregional congresses, tribal conferences, garden and farm design groups) to deal with our specific areas of interest, and to make these affinities global in scope. By avoiding centralised administrations, we avoid power blocs, and by avoiding tax funding, we avoid inefficiency. Fees for a regional secretariat would arise from an annual fee forwarded by participant groups.

Once continental groups and some global groups have allied, these congresses can increasingly bring in less informed or more remote groups to share resources in an humane alliance; after all, global seed exchanges, technology groups, gardening forums, and regional groups already meet and are increasing in cooperation. A concept of a global nation is, in fact, very well developed in such groups, and the idea of war or oppression across race, language, or territory is anathema to those allied in good works. The advantage of such alliances is that even isolated people can find global affinities; this is not necessarily true of regional organisations.


Systems of government are currently based on self-interest, economic pragmatism; belief, impractical theory, and power-centred minorities (religious, military, capitalist, communist, familial, or criminal). Almost all such groups set up competitive and “adversary-oriented “ systems.

We need to set about, in an orderly, sensible, and cooperative way, a system of replacing power-centred politics and political hierarchies with a far more flexible, practical, and information-centred system responsive to research and feedback, and with long- term goals of stability. And we need to do this in an ethical and non-threatening way, so that the transition to a cooperative (versus conflicting) global society is creative (not destructive).

The world needs a new, non-polarised, and non-contentious politic; one not made possible by those in situations that promote a left-right, black-white, capitalist-communist, believer-infidel thinking. Such systems are, like it or not, promoting antagonism and destroying cooperation and interdependence. Confrontational thinking, operating through political or power systems, has destroyed cultural, intellectual, and material resources that could have been used, in a life-centred ethic, for earth repair.

It is possible to agree with most people, of any race or creed, on the basics of life-centred ethics and commonsense procedures, across all cultural groups; it matters not that one group eats beef, and another regards cows as holy, providing they agree to cooperate in areas which are of concern to them both, and to respect the origins of their differences as a chance of history and evolution, not assessing such differences as due to personal perversity.

It is always possible to use differences creatively, and design to use them, not to eliminate one or other group as infidels. Belief is of itself not so much a difference as a refusal to admit the existence of differences; this easily transposes into the antagonistic attitude of “who is not with me is against me” , itself a coercive and illogical attitude and one likely, in the extreme, to classify all others as enemies, when they are merely living according to their own history and needs.

Most human communities function in relation to a long-term sustainability only because they do differ from others; what is possible to an Inuit (Eskimo) is not possible to a forest pygmy. Thus, it is not differences in themselves that are important; it is how all groups relate to the basic rules of the local ecology that permit them to function on a long-term basis. Belief, like religion, is a basically private and non-global characteristic, and should not be subject to comparisons. On close examination, we “believe” in those systems that enable us to behave without guilt, with respect to our resources and our own culture.

It has long been apparent that our current political, economic, and landuse systems cannot solve such long-term and worsening problems as soil degradation, ground water pollution, forest decline, the spread of poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition (or its extreme, famine). Despite good scientific prognoses and assessments, effective ground strategies are lacking. The temporary nature of political systems is an impediment to effective action. We could describe all western political systems as those of competing belief elites; whether they are self-described as communist, socialist, capitalist, or democratic, they all function in ways which are essentially short-term.

By their nature, political systems seek to impose a policy control over as wide an area of influence as possible, are power-centred (not life-centred), and are often composed of very few families or (in the case of royalist and feudal societies), one family. Thus, the continuing and long-sustained programmes necessary to reverse forest loss and soil decline are usually sacrificed for the short-term policies of an elite maintaining power. It was said of a recent prime minister of Australia that his national policies all worked to maximise profits from his farm!

“The argument for simplicity is never a political argument…when people practice it in their lives… they don’t even need any politics.” (Manas, 17 Oct 1984). This same statement also refers to the adoption of an ethical basis to action, to the placement of money and resources, and to the determination to act in accordance with one’s beliefs. All of these can occur independently of political change, and can be long-term (life-long) personal actions of great effect. That is, people can act independently of political theory (which rarely, if ever, covers the questions of ethics, simplicity, local autonomy, or life-oriented action). Such changes in people come about by education and information, and when enough people change, then political systems (if they are to survive) may follow, or become as irrelevant as they now appear to be in terms of real solutions.

For this reason, the place to start change is first with the individual (oneself), and second in one’s region or neighbourhood.


Some of the most charming and climatically appropriate houses on earth are built without bank loans, architects, metals, concrete, or contractors. However, in every case they are built in areas where trade unions, building surveyors, health officials, and local or state governments do not impede the home builder or the community providing shelter for themselves. While Chile (as an economic system guided by “experts”) accumulated a $12 billion foreign debt in 1985, poor people, acting without loans, together built at least $11 billion housing in slum areas by local cooperation without incurring any foreign debt. Why is this the case?

Stone, mud, bamboo, round timbers, rope, thatch, and even baked brick and tiles, are the age-old durable building materials of mankind. All can be locally produced if energy from community forests and people is provided. Even cement and mortar can be made if needed using kilns fired by wood, as can pottery, bricks, and roof tiles. None of this needs money if people work together.

The real cause of a lack of shelter (as with food) in any country is not that of finance, but of restrictive practices by a regulatory bureaucracy. Moreover, state or private ownership (versus community ownership) of forests, small mines, and lands is devoted to state or corporate profits to support a largely urban, leisured class of bureaucrats, which denies these basic biological and earth resources to the very people who work to produce or mine them.

We have had “national service” to fight wars, but I cannot recall any but sustainable tribal societies that require every man and every woman to help shelter and feed themselves. Curiously, we are drafted to kill strangers, and denied the right to preserve life; no armies are created to build houses, grow potatoes, or plant forests for the future; unemployment for others is preferred by those who choose power as a method of exploitation.

In very recent societies, our basic “right” is to vote, form unions, protest, or go to law (i.e. to support professional £lasses). Truly basic rights to grow or protect forests, to build a shelter, grow food, or provide water from our roof areas are commonly denied by local or state regulations. Effective local group action restores the true basic rights, which are those of personal responsibility for our sustenance on earth, and to earth itself. While “natural law” demands a fair return for every gift received, the laws of power demand gifts without thought of return-this is called “economic growth” and means unlimited resource exploitation and the concomitant exploitation of people.

The wealth of any area lies not in banks or cities, but in those basic resources, skills, and natural systems developed by its peoples.

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