On Saturday 13th and 20th November, my partner Su Dennett and I joined others from central Victoria travelling by train to the “Kill the Bill”/anti-lockdown/anti-mandate protests in Melbourne. This essay documents the experience, and reflects on the relationship between permaculture and oppositional activism over more than 40 years.
I also want to highlight the opportunities for permaculture activism in a time of a pandemic to help those in need who have the capacity and motivation to increase their personal, household and community autonomy, resilience and connection to nature. This should be independent of their beliefs, and certainly without the judgemental othering that has accelerated with Covid. In the process, I believe we will all learn to live more lightly on the earth in consideration of fair share and the future.
I was raised in a family at the front lines of the battle to “Stop the War” (in Vietnam). Consequently, as a primary school kid, I knew what it was like to be ostracised as a “commie traitor”. Later, I found my opinions progressively adopted as a symbol of the “generation gap,” also characterised by sex, drugs and rock and roll. If the war had lasted long enough, I knew I would face the prospect of going underground or burning my draft card and doing time.
As a teenager finding a point of difference from my parents was more difficult than for my peers. While I recognised the good fight against social injustice, racism and imperial aggression, I was more interested in creating the world we wanted – by living it each day. Early expressions of that included buying clothes at the op-shop, consciousness-enhancing drugs, hitchhiking and time in nature. These led on to the practical skills of salvaging, building, organic food growing, preserving and cooking.1 For more on my life journey to and with permaculture see my autobiographical piece ‘The Long View’ in Permaculture Pioneers.
Around this time I met Bill Mollison, an academic of my parent’s generation. He had been at the front lines of early Tasmanian environmental activism but had come to a similar conclusion to me. We both saw the need to use the best of Indigenous and traditional self-reliance, ecology and design science to create a “permanent” culture in the shadow of techno-industrial society doomed by the “Limits to Growth.”
Our intense working and living arrangements on the foot slopes of Mt Wellington led to the permaculture concept, and our initial permaculture experiments, during the intellectual ferment that was Tasmania in the 1970s.
While I actively participated in the campaigns to save the Franklin and the old growth forests of Tasmania, East Gippsland and Southern NSW, my interest was always in the creative alternatives, from passive solar design to ecological forestry. During the 80s, I acknowledged valid efforts at resistance against uranium mining, Pine Gap, and oppression of Indigenous and marginalised groups, amongst other important “causes”. But my preoccupation with skilling up to be a guinea pig for the permaculture vision was put to the test, in combination with Su’s commitment to natural living, home birth and home education. In 1985, Su quit her job, I cranked up my micro permaculture consulting business and, with school age kids and a baby on the way, we moved to Hepburn to become owner builders without bank finance.
Walking the talk was always more important to me than proselytising about the promise of permaculture. I left the proselytising to Mollison, with his charisma, polymathy and personal drive.
By the 90s I had enough of a personal track record to immerse myself in permaculture teaching, writing and public speaking. That passion for the positive solutions was punctuated by participation in mass demonstrations against the First and Second Gulf Wars (1991 & 2003) as well as the anti-globalisation action (S11) in 2000. At the S11 demonstration, our banner ‘Permaculture: Local Solutions to Global Problems’ struck a positive note on the festival-like first day encircling the G7 venue. Of course the media massively understated the crowd and on the second and third days, agent provocateurs and police violence triggered a hard line clearing of the ratbag elements from the streets, allowing the global elite to enter by the front door rather than having to come in the back way off the Birrarung (Yarra River).
This experience confirmed that not much had changed since Vietnam; the media trivialises or demonises the nature of the resistance, lies about numbers involved and covers for police-initiated violence. Channelling my father’s big picture historical perspective, I saw this oppositional activism as part of a new wave informed by ecological thinking. In the same way that Permaculture One surfed the first wave and Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual the second wave in the late 1980s with positive and grounded activism, I hoped Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability would surf this new wave. While that did happen, consolidating and deepening the teaching of permaculture around the world, the third wave became a casualty of 9/11. In the post-9/11 madness we joined the 150-200k people in the streets of Melbourne, protesting against Australia joining George Bush’s “Coalition of the willing” invading Iraq. What that protest proved is that when “the system”/”deep state” is really set on a course of action, a huge majority of the population being against it makes no difference.
As the noughties rolled into the teens, my role as a futurist2 See for instance futurescenarios.org inevitably included a more overtly political aspect. However my aim was always to help permaculture and kindred activists understand the bigger picture context within which our focus on the positive nature- and human-centred design responses would play out.
My writings on Covid over the last 18 months chart a trajectory leading to ‘Pandemic Brooding: Brown Tech in new clothing’. While that essay involves a degree of detached fascination, at the same time, my tracking of the action on the streets of Melbourne during the most recent of six lockdowns raised the emotions of past actions against the wrongs of the world. Part of me wanted to be at the two recent rallies in Melbourne to show solidarity with the brave folks at previous “illegal” rallies who had stood up against repressive lockdowns, vaccine mandates and excessive use of force by our increasingly militarised police.
My reasons for not having been at those earlier “violent” rallies had only a little to do with the risks to my 66-year-old body and nothing to do with fear of being associated with so-called right-wing extremists – or even actual right-wing extremists. I understood I could contribute in other ways, including writing. However, once the protests became legal and the police changed strategy from confrontation and provocation to coordination and facilitation, the threats to life and limb moderated. More importantly, the issues morphed from the lockdowns and mandates to the Bill to give unfettered powers to the premier before the emergency powers expire on 11th December.
When Su suggested we go, I got out our 21-year-old banner and packed some RetroSuburbia bookmarks (which include links to permaculture positivity) with the intention of making the trip multipurpose.
First, I wanted to see for myself the people involved rather depending on the “far right” Rebel News or citizen journalists, let alone the mainstream media reports (my childhood and adult experience over five decades having inoculated me against their habitual manipulation of the facts to serve the purposes of “the system”).
For me, the most important observation was the great diversity of participants: families with young children; health and other essential service workers; Aussie battlers from the suburban heartlands and regional hinterlands; migrants from different ethnicities; religious Christians and Muslims and more. It felt there were people from every group, network and sector, but just a minority splinter from each.
I can think of four factors that could account for the massive turnout despite the apparent situation that the vast majority of the population is double vaccinated and happy to be so:
- The deliberate concentration of the adverse impacts of policies on the unvaccinated, making them an oppressed minority despite the mainstream claim that this oppression is self-selected. This expression is a powerful motivation to show up.
- The surge of energy from being with a big diverse crowd all sharing a common rejection of what most people (at least that’s what we are told) willingly accept, is a powerful boost. In the 1966 anti-war march my mother told me that the purpose of a demonstration was not to convince the public or the politicians but to provide a boost of solidarity to the activists to help them in their more difficult, slow and sometimes isolated work in the community, talking to people one-on-one and organising small events informing the interested public.
- Perhaps the most important reason for the large turnout could be that many of the people present were themselves double vaccinated, but are strongly pro-choice and wanted to express their solidarity with the unvaccinated.
- Finally, despite the mainstream media lockdown on debate around increasingly authoritarian governance, the rising general concern about future potential abuses of power.
Of course, the narrative from the mainstream media is focused on the apparently mysterious powers of far-right and conspiracy theorists to fool ordinary people into joining these events that are imported American memes of no relevance to our political context. If there is one thing Covid has proven, it is that despite the diversity of politics around the globe, the same set of policies with minor variations can emerge simultaneously.
While the mainstream media have historically always under-reported numbers at demonstrations against home governments, they routinely over-report demonstrations against enemy or competitor nations. With Covid related demonstrations, it seems the under reporting has reached absurd extremes. We estimated the crowd on Saturday 13th to be between 70 and 100k while some estimates for 20th November were over 200k. Most of the mainstream media reports mentioned “thousands.” That is between one and two orders of magnitude out, hardly an estimation error. But I suppose this needs to be put in the context of a demonstration in London estimated at around 1 million focused outside the BBC headquarters shouting ‘shame’ that was not considered newsworthy enough for the national broadcaster to bother reporting it at all.
The really interesting thing about our experience at the first rally was the positive response of participants and bystanders to our permaculture banner and the 60 or so bookmarks we handed out. This motivated us to return the next Saturday with 200 bookmarks, to the bigger event that was even more festive. We probably could have handed out far more, but the event was exhausting enough as it was. Su had two people politely decline to take one when offered, I had three. Most were curious about any good news, many acknowledging permaculture as what we all need. There were also relatively small numbers of fans who recognised me and were so grateful for my solidarity with the socially excluded, my writing on the subject, or more generally for permaculture, that had changed their lives for the better. Of course there were also the stories about their permie and kindred friends who were on the other side of the divide.
I’m sure some will see this as crass commercial promotion of our products to troubled people searching for answers. These days I am more openly proud that our work in the world is funded by those who gain direct value from what we do and produce, rather than the compromises that come with government, institutional or corporate largess.
However I have mused on the fact that we are proselytising, in the way that radical left and environmental activists have always done at any gathering of the disaffected. My parents did so on behalf of the Communist Party for almost a decade before I was born, and as a kid I handed out literature written and printed by my parents (co-founders of the Vietnam Action Committee WA) aiming to recruit those opposed to conscription to the more radical cause opposing the war of aggression against the Vietnamese people.
At the first Melbourne march, I imagined the radical left were having a severe case of FOMO. The following week, the promotion of a counter demonstration by Antifa arced up the fear of nasty conflict. While it apparently numbered a few hundred, they were very angry and the police kept them somewhat removed from the festive march of the “extreme right”. It was unclear whether the police action was more intended to contain the Antifa anger from spilling over into some Don Quixote attack on the assembled masses, or from stopping the much noted “neo-Nazi element” engaging in contact sport with the Antifa crew.
Of course the focus on angry minorities wanting to blame other angry minorities is the perfect divide and rule strategy of “the system”, a fact that was no doubt behind one banner which said ‘Restore Unity’ above the anarchist symbol. I complemented the blokes carrying it as I handed them a RetroSuburbia bookmark.
Beyond the missing radical left green fringe was another gaping hole in the gathered multitude. There were no unions, professional associations, environmental organisations or other mainstream civil society groups officially present. The complete abandonment of people by the civil society groups is opening fertile ground for the formation of new unions, other civil society groups and, of course, political parties. Obviously parties of the right, including the far-right, will gain enormously from this and the left, if that still exists in politics (this includes The Greens) have only themselves to blame. The hysterical focus of the left on some extreme version of identity politics and their increasing alignment in support of authoritarian and corporatist solutions to the climate emergency leaves them more and more as serving “the system”. Let us hope that does not continue far enough to create some version of Mao’s Red Guards driving some ideological transformation of society from above, in response to the ever-worsening Limits to Growth crisis.
Awareness of the dark nature of the world is a psychological burden that can pull one down into a vortex of despair and paranoia. The best antidotes I know of against these hazards are unmediated communication and exchange with diverse others around simple things, such as shared food, spontaneous play, art and grounded productivity. Where those activities extend beyond the human-dominated built environment to unmediated interplay with nature, the sources of understanding and faith in the larger cycles of life can ameliorate, if not erase, the darkest parts of the human psyche. For so many survivors of trauma, ranging from personal abuse to war, connection with nature has been their salvation. When our modest connections to nature are also the sources of our material needs and bodily sustenance, we begin the process of rebuilding a benign nature-centred human economy. This in turn leads to the organic unfolding of household, community and wider bioregional economies adapted to challenging realities.
Increasingly strident articulation of what is right and wrong does not assist this permaculture vision. Instead, it is the cross fertilisation and hybrid vigour of ideas, subcultures and humble lifeways that provide the hope for new recombinant “cultures of place” that respect and build on ancient lineages fused in a new synthesis where the values and achievements of western, now globalised, modernity are just threads in a new tapestry of life. In nature, new ecologies and genetics can burst forth from the breakdown and dispersal of long established ecological and genetic norms. In the same way that recombinant novel ecosystems regenerate degraded landscapes using newcomer and ancestral species and genetics, human cultural evolution comes from the unregulated wild fusion of multiple lineages and spontaneous creativity in a context of cultural chaos and degeneration.
So beyond these flowery generalisations, how does this help navigate relationships across past and emerging subcultural and normative divides that are both widening and closing with remarkable rapidity? Am I not concerned, as the co-originator of the permaculture, that my association with people labelled extreme right, conspiracy lunatics or simply me-first-egotists will destroy my reputation and through that, permaculture more generally? You have got to be kidding!
At the age of 9, I had the internal resources to refuse to stand for ‘God Save the Queen’ at the Bicton primary school ANZAC day assembly (in 1964 as the excitement of “our boys going to Vietnam” was hotting up). I was the lone resister in a school of 600 working and middle class kids. At 66 my life is, by conscious design and hard work against the tide of social norms, ignoring the red herring rewards, less dependent physically and psychologically on “the system” than the vast majority. Whatever the social odium, media targeting, financial and other loss that is likely to fall on my head from loss of reputation or status in these tumultuous times is hardly enough to silence my voice. Compare those risks with the suffering of fellow Australians being persecuted out of their jobs and society for upholding their right to bodily autonomy and raising their children by their values rather than those of corrupt national and global elites.
Meanwhile the suffering of our greatest fellow Australian, Julian Assange, continues to play out through Kafkaesque legal and psychological torture for daring – and succeeding – in showing the corrupt abuse of power that underpins our lives of apparent privilege and complicity. Permaculture and Wikileaks are both creative design solutions that undermine centralised power in very different ways.
The transformative promise of permaculture is still to be realised; whether it can remain open-source, emergent, adaptive and inclusive while avoiding being co-opted, emasculated or demonised remains an open question. Creating a permanent culture has always involved a dance between regeneration and resistance.