A Few Thoughts On "Permaculturizing" Our Local Economies

Pre-Blog: The blog post that follows was written by myself during 2013 when I was doing some collaborations with the founders of Seedstock Community Currency in Vancouver. The original blog post can still be viewed HERE. Since 2013 the Seedstock team has gone on to work on other projects as they realized that this community currency was a little bit ahead of its time. However, the basic model in terms of the way the currency operated was very well designed and simple to understand. I think that it is an invaluable tool for lessons on how to design our economic communities. I am eternally grateful to Jordan Bober and Paola Qualizza for offering me the opportunity to work with them back in 2013. This opportunity opened my eyes and helped spark my love for the social dimensions of permaculture.

 

There is no doubt about the fact that society has gotten itself into quite the environmental, health, and economic predicament over the past century or so. Our current agricultural and economic models are obsessed with market efficiency and consumerism, which means that they are great at extracting things (like resources from the Earth or labour from humans), utilizing them in the most cost-effective way, and creating a huge array of products that can be packaged and shipped anywhere in a jiffy. However, these models are seriously lacking in humanity and ethics, and value streamlined über-efficient production over things like diversity, human rights, health, and community. They are uptight, teetering and vulnerable, and are based on the assumption that cheap energy will last forever. Many people predict that they might break down a few decades from now as energy costs rise and their incapacity to change or adapt to new states spells trouble. This is why humans have begun to rethink things and devise innovative new holistic models that can be much more Earth/animal/human (aka. "life") friendly, resilient - and fun - if applied appropriately.

More and more people are becoming aware of the fact that large-scale monocrop based agriculture depletes soil, damages natural ecosystems, and produces nutrient deficient produce, among other unpleasant things. An alternative to this system, synthesized by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia during the 70's and 80's, is called Permaculture. Permaculture mainly involves modelling human-friendly horticultural systems on naturally occurring ecosystems that cycle energy and nutrients within themselves in a self-perpetuating way. This method eliminates the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and creates maximum yield per minimum amount of human work.

Permaculture initially stood for "permanent agriculture" because Permaculture systems are able to exist for extended periods of time, and produce food and other essential services for human and non-human life. However, it was soon discovered that the Permaculture model could be applied not only to growing plants, but also to everything from building houses and other structures, to organizing community events, economics and even daily routine activities. It therefore came to stand for "permanent culture" and is viewed by many as a general model for all facets of sustainable living.

One component of rethinking our current economic system is the creation of community currencies. Money has come a long way since the creation of commodity currencies that were traded as unit amounts of grains, produce or livestock, to something much more elusive and intangible, something that none of us ever seem to have enough of and that all too easily slips from our fingers into the hands of the banks and credit card companies. Community currencies aim to put the original value and meaning behind money back on the table in a manner that evokes many of the same principles that inform Permaculture.

The key factor to understand is that community currencies can only be circulated within a designated community and traded for the goods and services that participating businesses pledge to offer in exchange for this currency. This means that like Permaculture systems, they create a self-perpetuating loop. To help us understand this, we might think of money as something that harbours potential energy that flows from different directions and passes through our community, which can be likened to a Permaculture garden. Some of these sources of energy in a garden might be sunlight, water, wind, or heat. Permaculture designers think up the best ways to capture the energy that flows into their system and make it work for them.

For example, they might design their garden in such a way that raised beds surrounded by large stones capture, store, and radiate the sun's heat, while large hardy trees buffer smaller garden plants from cold winds. This would create a warm microclimate that allows sun and heat loving plant communities to flourish. The trees protect the small plants, which in turn might provide pest control and nitrogen fixation for the trees; both trees and smaller plants can provide food, shelter, shade, animal fodder, and medicines for humans as well as wildlife and microbial habitat. These diverse species become linked in beneficial long-term relationships that allow the system to exist in balance over time and make good use of the energies that enter the system.

 Above image by seedstock.ca (based on a sketch by Conrad Juraschka)

Above image by seedstock.ca (based on a sketch by Conrad Juraschka)

In a similar way, humans can harness the energy of community currencies to do beneficial work within a community. Seedstock Community Currency in Vancouver, for example, can be used by the public in exchange for the goods and services offered by local businesses, or it can be used by the businesses themselves for this purpose. It can be traded for Canadian dollars in fundraising initiatives by non- profits or it can be used to create interest-free microloans for urban farmers who are willing to accept it as partial payment for their produce.

It creates publicity for local businesses and organizations, while strengthening ties between the two through gifting, and creating a stronger bond between community residents and their local businesses and organizations. These bonds create a trusting community environment and stimulate communication and cooperation, which tends to generate things like happiness and stability. They can be compared to the long-lasting bonds that exist in a well-designed Permaculture garden. People make the money work for them and keep it circulating through the system (system) as it helps make the system more resilient, stable and healthy.

So “permaculturizing” our economy might be one of the steps that we can take towards a more sustainable and socially responsible future. If we can cycle energy and grow healthy food systems in our back yards, why not use the same principles to grow healthy money systems in our communities?