I have often wondered when and how the world will wake up to the brilliance and joy of permaculture. Just think: a bunch of people in a particular place get together and decide how to live their lives. They think about what they’ve got between them: some skills and favourite things to do, access to a bit of land, clear ideas about what cannot be done without, and so on. Then they draw up a design and a plan for how to achieve all their needs and desires, using, as far as possible, only their local resources. Simple! at least conceptually. The designing may be complex and it requires this set of skills called permaculture – so you need to learn the basic principles, apply them and learn some more, and so on. It takes brilliance, which comes from a reservoir of experience we can call on, and you know when it’s done right because of the joy you feel. So it’s a science and practice with feelings – and also ethics with feelings. Permaculture’s ethical principles are about love: caring for the earth, caring for people, and a third one: ‘fair shares’, which is really a re-statement of the first two.
I first learned about permaculture at about the same time (around 1990) as I first heard the name ‘Rabindranath Tagore’. Ten years later I found out about his work on rural reconstruction and I saw a resonance with permaculture. Since then I’ve gone down the Tagorean path rather than the permaculture one, and this has made me realise that the concept they share: about people getting together and deciding how to live their lives, is far from simple – because you can’t do it unless and until you are free, in a particular sense which Tagore expressed rather well:
‘The will, which is free, must seek for the realization of its harmony other wills which are also free, and in this is the experience of spiritual life. The infinite centre of personality, which radiates its joy by giving itself out in freedom, must create other centres of freedom to unite with it in harmony. Beauty is the harmony realized in things which are bound by law. Love is the harmony realized in wills which are free.’ (‘The Second Birth’, Personality, 1917)
So, we are only free if we seek to get together and liberate others. That’s an opposite to individualism, which is an illusion anyway. The phrase ‘bound by law’ seems uncomfortable, restricting, but it’s the same idea really, and in permaculture terms it could refer to being committed to do one’s share towards the agreed design.
Bengali sociologist and economist, Sasadhar Sinha, in his book Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore (1962), suggests that Tagore’s ideal of human unity ‘could only come when the present possibilities of compromise and reform had been completely exhausted’, and that this would involve ‘the disappearance of one’s own familiar world’.
I recently read a book called Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by German sociologist and economist, Wolfgang Streek, which suggested to me that the state of the world Sinha sees as necessary for Tagore’s ideal of human unity to come about is here. Tagore’s view was that humanity took a wrong turn in the modern age, which we’ll wake up to in due course, and adopt a better way forward based on rural reconstruction, which resembles permaculture in many respects. Streek summarises what is happening in little more than one page of his book as follows:
‘With hindsight, the crisis history of late capitalism since the 1970s appears as an unfolding of the old fundamental tension between capitalism and democracy – a gradual process that broke up the forced marriage arranged between the two after the Second World War. In so far as the legitimation problems of democratic capitalism turned into [end p.4] accumulation problems, their solution called for a progressive emancipation of the capitalist economy from democratic intervention. The securing of a mass base for modern capitalism thus shifted from the sphere of politics to the market, understood as a mechanism for the production of greed and fear, in a context of increasing insulation of the economy from mass democracy. I shall describe this as the transformation of the Keynesian political-economic institutional system of postwar capitalism into a neo-Hayekian economic regime.
‘My conclusion will be that, unlike the 1970s, we may now really be near the end of the postwar political-economic formation – an end which, albeit in a different way, was foretold and even wished for in the crisis theories of ‘late capitalism’. What I feel sure about is that the clock is ticking for democracy as we have come to know it, as it is about to be sterilized as redistributive mass democracy and reduced to a combination of the rule of law and public entertainment. This splitting of democracy from capitalism through the splitting of the economy from democracy [Streeck’s emphasis] – a process of de-democratization of capitalism through the de-economization of democracy – has come a long way since the crisis of 2008, in Europe just as elsewhere.
‘It must remain an open question, however, whether the clock is also ticking for capitalism. Institutionalized expectations in a transformed democracy under neoliberalism to make do with the justice of the market are evidently by no means incompatible with capitalism. But, despite all the efforts at re-education, diffuse expectations of socia1 justice still present in sections of the population may resist channelling into laissez-faire market democracy and even provide an impetus for anarchistic protest movements [my emphasis]. Such a possibility was indeed repeatedly considered in the old crisis theories. It is not clear, though, that protests of that kind are a threat to the capitalist ‘two-thirds society’ looming on the horizon or to global ‘plutonomy’; [end p.5] various techniques for managing an abandoned underclass, developed and tested in the United States, appear thoroughly exportable also to Europe. More critical could be the question of whether, if monetary doping with its potentially dangerous side effects has to be abandoned at some point, other growth drugs will be available to keep capital accumulation under way in the rich countries of the world. On this we can only speculate – as I do in the concluding remarks of this book.’ (Streek, 2014, pp. 4-6)
To me this means that ‘the present possibilities of compromise and reform’ have been ‘completely exhausted’, and that this will involve ‘the disappearance of one’s own familiar world’, hence now is surely the time for a Tagorean or permaculture world.