World Change Study Course

[updated 29/8/15]

I prepared a presentation for the International Permaculture Convergence on 8-9 September 2015 ( ). There is little in this about Tagore but I see the subject as Tagorean world change. I’ve added the script (without the 12 slides) at the end as Unit 6.

[updated 16/2/15]

I have contributed a further article to the PA blog ‘Is it Time for a Permaculture World?’, which I’ve now added at the end as Unit 5.

I have contributed four articles to the Permaculture Association Ambassadors blog: They are on distinct topics but all are relevant to the need and form of radical world change today. They all have recommended reading lists or set texts, and a student of world change would learn a great deal by studying these articles and the works I refer to. I seem to be building up a course of study. (The originals are illustrated, at the request of the PA Communications Coordinator, but I am including just the text here.)

Unit 1: Permaculture and Politics

Is permaculture a politics? Is it political? Should it be? Is permaculture becoming more political, perhaps in response to social and environmental concerns not being addressed at all effectively by the established political parties? These questions, and the exploration which followed, were sparked off by a meeting in Exeter on 8th January of a group of people interested in the new party named ‘Left Unity’ (LU).

LU came about after showings of a film by Ken Loach called ‘The Spirit of ’45’, which showed how people got together to rebuild Britain after the Second World War. A Labour government was elected, and did all the right things to help in the effort: social house-building programmes, the NHS, other social welfare benefits, nationalised industries, cooperating with an active Trades Union movement. The film then shows how all of that is being destroyed, initially by the policies and propaganda of the Thatcher government, and how Labour in power has failed the people.

Loach called for a new Party of the Left to be formed to tackle community breakdown, and the suffering caused to working class people by high levels of unemployment, degrading and low paid jobs, extreme inequality, disturbing levels of poverty and debt, homelessness, the privatisation of the NHS, and ‘cuts’ and austerity measures. The founding conference of Left Unity took place on 30th November 2013.

Ten people came to our local LU meeting to form a core group to get things organised.[1] Not all had met before, and in the introductory go-round three people mentioned being interested in permaculture. One of the three (‘H’) had only come along with her partner. From the way she announced her interest in permaculture one gathered that for her this was the opposite of involvement in party politics. She said she was ‘non-voting’ and ‘disillusioned with all that’, and was now focussed on ‘how you live your life’. But she has a political background, her father having been active in the Green Party, and her mother spent time at the Greenham Common peace camp. Her partner is a committed leftie, having been a member of the Communist Party of Wales, and declared himself now to be ‘anarcho-socialist’. They had moved to Exeter very recently, and he in particular wanted to know what was going on in the city.

The second person (‘T’) to mention permaculture is a student of agriculture at Bicton College. He is working on a permaculture project and said that the ‘design basis is brilliant’. He is interested in Left Unity for the implied openness. He is ‘broadly left, as long as it is uniting’.

I was the third person at the LU meeting with an interest in permaculture. Curiously, between us we seem to cover the three ethical principles: H is for ‘people care’, with her focus on ‘how you live your life’; T is for ‘earth care’, with his interest in agriculture; my focus is on permaculture politics, which is surely what ‘fair shares’ implies. The world today is so far from fair that it beggars belief. Oxfam recently published a paper which showed that ‘the world’s richest 85 people have the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion people who comprise the poorer half of the world’s population’ (The Guardian, 20 January 2014).

Permaculture has to get political if it has a role to play in taking on that unfairness with the urgency it merits, which is impossible unless we develop ways of meeting everyone’s needs while also restoring ecosystem health. But if permaculture becomes a politics, let it be soundly based. We need to develop our own critique of political economy. We should explore the hidden history of permaculture, understanding that permanent agriculture and permanent culture have existed for millennia – as has the series of parasitical civilisations which have seized the surplus produce from those who labour to produce all the wealth.

There is an old saying: ‘civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints’. Each civilisation in history thrived for a few centuries before the natural resources it depended upon, especially soils, were exhausted from supplying the needs and wants of its alienated citizens behind their defensive walls. And so the civilisation died, leaving behind the crumbing bones of its ramparts and monuments. Western civilisation is simply the latest and worst example, and it too will come to an end. From that understanding the role of permaculture resolves itself into how we help the world get back to normality, despite being handicapped by the damage resulting from a few centuries of fossil-fuelled capitalism.

To get the idea of permaculture as a world changing politics, a good place to start is Bill Mollison’s 1989 film ‘In Grave Danger of Falling Food’.[2] Mollison has been criticised for being over-optimistic, and harming the credibility of permaculture. That view may have been right twenty years ago. When the film was shown on BBC TV, the tiny office of the British Permaculture Association could not cope with the avalanche of expressions of interest. Things are very different now. Not only have permaculture design techniques been developed and demonstrated in the UK and worldwide, but the Association is very well run and raring to go.

The intellectually-minded amongst those interested in world change have been engaged in a ten year debate on future scenarios for the collapse of the capitalist system.[3] The mistake they make is in assuming that the dominant economic system is the only one in existence. About twenty years ago, economist Susan George came up with a rule of thumb: in the developed world, 80% of the population are ‘inside’ the capitalist system, 20% ‘outside’; in the less-developed world it is the other way round.[4] George’s rule of thumb simplifies a very fuzzy situation, and may not be correct numerically today, but the idea is still useful. Capitalism engages with a minority, and is unaffected by the masses of the powerless, landless and jobless. It is interesting to note that permaculture methods have been dramatically successful applied to the problems of marginalised groups struggling to survive on degraded land.

The old guys, the big names in the history of political thought, understood what makes capitalism tick better than we do today, because they witnessed its development over the past few centuries.[5] I recommend that permaculturists read up on that history, engage in politics,[6] understand that capitalism will break down, and that working at the margins is what we need to do. We must have ‘faith in humankind’, as did Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), whose important part in the hidden history of permaculture has been the subject of my researches over the past decade.[7]

Suggested reading

Blaikie, Piers The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries (Harlow, Essex: Longman Scientific & Technical, 1985) Highly relevant to permaculture: uses tools of social analysis to examine why most soil conservation programmes in developing countries do not succeed. still in print, second-hand copies readily obtainable.
Carter, Vernon Gill & Tom Dale Topsoil and Civilization, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974 [1955]) Key text on land degradation as ancient problem caused by supplying cities, long before modern industrialised agriculture.
Engels, F. On Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress, 1956) Useful on basics of Marx’s critique: ‘labour-power’ and ‘surplus value’. Freely available online,
Kropotkin, Peter Fields Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, ed. by Colin Ward (London: Freedom, 1985) The most ‘permaculture-like’ of works on political economy. Kropotkin’s text freely available online,
Marx, Karl Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume Two, trans. by David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1992) Helpful Introduction by Ernest Mandel (pp. 11-79).Marx’s works freely available online,
Smith, Adam The Wealth of Nations (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1985 [1776]) Interesting on the division of labour and the labour theory of value. Freely available online,
Wrench G.T. Reconstruction By Way Of The Soil (London: Faber and Faber, 1946) Wrench writes of the ‘rule of return’ or ‘life cycle’ whereby everything that took life from the soil must be returned to the soil.
Wrench, G. T. The Restoration of the Peasantries With Especial Reference to that of India (London: C. W. Daniel, 1939) Most of Wrench’s works are freely available online,

Unit 2: Permaculture and Tagore

Permaculture is growing. Education and research are expanding. Interesting demo sites are becoming available to visitors. Permaculture ‘dots on the map’ are multiplying.[8] All this is good news. What was a lifestyle choice for a few, based on a set of ethics, principles and techniques, is starting to look like a movement. Some people may be drawn to permaculture as a political movement.[9] Others would prefer an anti-political understanding of permaculture,[10] which still offers the prospect of widespread world change. The Bengali poet and polymath, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) offers such a model.

Tagore often insisted he was not a philosopher or a scholar. He was not interested in theories or utopian visions. His authority comes from his practical efforts over fifty years to revive traditional Indian society, which had been severely disrupted by British rule. His remedy for a broken society was to heal it from within. Cooperation was the key. People must get together in their local communities to help each other and themselves. To give them a start, they would need advice and expertise, suitable training and education, health and welfare provision, affordable finance, and encouragement towards developing participative government and local conflict resolution. Most importantly for Tagore, to counter fatalism and apathy their spirits must be raised, by reviving traditional arts and crafts, music and story-telling, fairs and festivities. Tagore’s motivation changed over the course of his rural reconstruction efforts: initially he felt sympathy and a sense of responsibility as a landlord, next he tried to set out a national programme of constructive self government, lastly he pinned his hopes on bringing about change through education.

Tagore was both an indefatigable man of action and a compulsive writer who left a vast written legacy.[11] Fortunately for us, his ideas on world change can be appreciated by studying just five pieces of writing: two poems: ‘Call Me Back to Work’ (1894) and ‘They Work’ (1941) and three essays: ‘Society and State’ (1904); ‘Nationalism in the West’ (1917) and ‘City and Village’ (1928) (all available at dates of the two poems span the period over which Tagore was working to revive Indian village society. ‘Call Me Back to Work’ shows vividly the Poet’s compassion and commitment. In the final stanza he urges himself into action:

‘Gather yourself, O Poet and arise.
If you have courage bring it as your gift.
There is so much sorrow and pain,
a world of suffering lies ahead,—
poor, empty, small, confined and dark.
We need food and life, light and air,
strength and health and spirit bright with joy
and wide bold hearts.
Into the misery of this world, O Poet,
bring once more from heaven the light of faith.’

It was a revelation for Tagore when he was put in charge of the family estates in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1891. He was deeply moved by the natural beauty of the region and the simple life of the common people. He saw the deep despair which pervades rural life all over the country and determined to improve the conditions with programmes of rural development. The root cause of this despair was British imperialism. The British introduced private land ownership and created an urban middle of professionals and administrators. The absentee urban landowners exploited and neglected their tenants.

Tagore moved his base to Santiniketan in West Bengal in 1901, and continued rural reconstruction work in the neighbouring villages, as well as maintaining his interest and involvement in the Tagore estates. In 1903 the British government in India announced their intention to partition Bengal, into a largely Muslim East and a largely Hindu West. Popular objection to this ‘divide and rule’ measure manifested as protest marches and a ‘Swadeshi’ boycott of British good, particularly cloth. Tagore became a leader of the protests, wrote patriotic songs, gave stirring speeches and led a demonstration of Hindu-Muslim solidarity involving tying friendship bracelets. He favoured transforming the Swadeshi boycott into a move towards ‘Constructive Swadeshi’, and he urged urban landlords to return to their estates and engage in reviving village craft industries and local fairs. His essay ‘Society and State’ (Swadeshi Samaj in Bengali) was originally a public address he gave in 1904, at a meeting to discuss the failure of the British government in Bengal to solve a problem of water shortage. In the essay Tagore makes a powerful case for devolving decision making and responsibility to grassroots level, thus reviving traditional Indian society: Tagore explains that their country has traditionally had a society, but not a state in the English sense:

‘What in English concepts is known as the State was called in our country Sarkar or Government. This Government existed in ancient India in the form of kingly power, but there is a difference between the present English State and our ancient kingly power. England relegates to State care all the welfare services in the country; India did that only to a very limited extent.’

Tagore goes on to explain that in India, ‘social duties were specifically assigned to the members of society’, and the king made his contribution, like any other wealthy member of society, and the word for social duties is dharma, which ‘permeated the whole social fabric’.

Tagore was unable to persuade the English-educated urban intelligentsia to adopt his political programme, and the negative boycott turned violent and destructive, and so he turned his back on the protests and returned to his base at Santiniketan, where he implemented the Constructive Swadeshi ideals on a small scale. He had started a small school at Santiniketan in 1901 where the teaching encouraged creativity, engagement with nature, local food growing, and learning about life in the villages. The school grew in numbers and led eventually to Tagore establishing an international university named Visva-Bharati. A key element of the university was its Institute of Rural Reconstruction named Sriniketan. Tagore described the philosophy behind this venture in his essay ‘City and Village’, in which his aims appear very modest. He explains that rather than think of the whole country, it is best to start in a small way: ‘If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established’.

Obviously Tagore failed in his efforts. Vandana Shiva, the indefatigable campaigner for Indian farmers’ rights against agribusiness monopolies, tells of the poverty and despair, with more than 270,000 farmers caught in the debt trap committing suicide since 1995.[12] Curiously enough, Tagore’s failure then gives us hope a century later. He foresaw, if not the circumstances Shiva describes, but the dehumanising effect of industrialism and the nation state, and he wrote a penetrating critique in ‘Nationalism in the West’, which is the text of a lecture he gave over twenty times in 1916 in the United States.

The final piece of Tagore’s writing, the poem ‘They Work’, written in 1941 shortly before he died, provides a particularly important and optimistic insight. Its subject is the transience of the empires which had successively ruled India: the Pathans, the Moghuls, then the ‘mighty British’:

‘Again, under that sky, have come marching columns of the mighty British, along iron-bound roads and in chariots spouting fire, scattering the flames of their force.
I know that the flow of time will sweep away their empire’s enveloping nets, and the armies, bearers of its burden, will leave not a trace in the path of the stars.’

Through all these changes, the people who carry out the work go on: ‘Empires by the hundred collapse and on their ruins the people work.’ Translated into permaculture terms, and the situation we are faced with today, what Tagore is saying is that all parasitic empires, including modern industrial civilisation, the nation state and finance institutions, will inevitably exhaust the resources which sustain them, and so decline and fall. Then the people who work will reclaim and revive the degraded land, and life will go on.

The message for the permaculture movement is that we need not think of saving or changing the world but of returning to normal, and rediscovering the convivial delights of being human.

Unit 3: Permanent Agriculture: Past, Present and Future

The story of how agriculture began seems very familiar. We know about the Neolithic Revolution,[13] a profound change which took place when prehistoric people were already skilled at making stone tools, but before they discovered how to work metals or even fire pottery. They domesticated plants and animals, and domesticated themselves too by making permanent settlements, with the social structures and cultural practices which sustained living closely together. This revolution became possible because of the amelioration of the climate around 12,000 years ago, after the peak of the last glaciation, in the early Holocene, with its relatively stable warm conditions. Agriculture was discovered between 11000 bp and 3000 bp. There were probably multiple primary origins, in the Middle East, central Africa, China, New Guinea, Mesoamerica, and the northern Andes, and then the farming way of life dispersed to cover and dominate more and more of the world.

The old agricultural revolution involved the domestication of remarkably few species of plants and animals: some large-seeded annual grass species, several important legumes, and the major meat sources: cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. These all originated in western Asia, the area which has the world’s earliest evidence for food production. Other regions where agriculture began contributed fewer domesticated species of such importance to the world today (Bellwood 2013 127). Given that agriculture today depends very largely on these same species, domesticated thousands of years ago, we must surely agree that the old revolution brought in a ‘permanent agriculture’.

That may be interesting, but is it relevant to the challenges of today? Surely what’s happening now is what matters! That is certainly true, and there exists a concerned response to the horrors of what Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, calls ‘Farmageddon’. The response includes promotion of organic farming and small-scale mixed farming, and campaigns focussed on what Lymbery calls ‘putting people first’, which means not tolerating the grossly inefficient process of feeding animals with massive quantities of grains, legumes and fish, which could and should be used to feed far more people directly. The response also includes taking action at a personal and local community level, with organic gardening, allotments, community gardening, veg boxes, farmers markets, community supported agriculture – adding up to the ‘local food movement’ which Lester Brown notes, in World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, has grown hugely worldwide without needing any explicit policies or political intervention (175-78).

Permaculture is part of the concerted response against Farmageddon. The Permaculture Association, and its members and associates, work towards today’s ‘permanent agriculture’ with some success. As I observed in an earlier article ‘Permaculture is growing. Education and research are expanding. Interesting demo sites are becoming available to visitors. Permaculture “dots on the map” are multiplying. All this is good news. What was a lifestyle choice for a few, based on a set of ethics, principles and techniques, is starting to look like a movement (‘Permaculture and Tagore’ ). An important offshoot of the permaculture movement is the Transition Network, which has grown enormously since Transition Town Totnes started in 2006 ( ). There are currently thousands of transition groups in at least forty countries, and local food is a crucial element in all of these.

The reformist and more radical efforts to promote ‘permanent agriculture’ today are encouraging, but they are not going to get big enough fast enough to avert the ecological and human crises we are faced with. There needs to be a new agricultural revolution, and I believe that to bring this about we need to understand the old one, and why it is still with us, in an intensified and profit-driven version. A book I would strongly recommend for this purpose is First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective by professor of archaeology Peter Bellwood. This may seem an unlikely title for a study of the Neolithic Revolution, but it is the sequel to his earlier book First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. In the second half of his recent book Bellwood covers the same ground as the earlier work, with increased confidence and concision – and better maps.[14]

Setting the two books side by side illustrates a conundrum: how is it that virtually the whole of the human species is shaped by a contradictory dual instinct: a combination of sedentism and migration, an urge both to dig in and to move on? It is this which made the first agricultural revolution highly successful and enduring, and yet destructive and doomed in the very long term.

Bellwood explains how unlikely, uncertain and protracted was the domestication of wild grasses, plants which had evolved to ripen gradually and then shatter to distribute their seeds in time and space (Bellwood 57-8). From around 19,000 BC people were exploiting wild cereals, picking them unripe before they shattered. For domestication to occur, people must have harvested ripe grains, the ones which had not yet fallen off the ears, and planted some of the seeds in new plots away from wild stands. This must have been repeated often enough for varieties to be selected which ripened all at once and did not shatter. The process took about a thousand years and the humans who first domesticated cereals can have had no prevision of how important those varieties would become.

The downside of the domestication of annual plants is that it requires land to be cleared every year, an unnatural process which results in land degradation, especially with the major increases in settlement size which occurred during the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic (8500-7000 bc), when some large villages reached an almost urban extent of 16 hectares (Bellwood 2005 54). The spate of forest clearances may even have contributed to a ‘Greenhouse Era’ thousands of years ago.[15] Another factor which has made agriculture ultimately unsustainable is that it resulted in dramatic increases in population, especially after the development of ceramics, and the ability to boil up gruel as early weaning food, hence reduced birth intervals. A further factor is a set of powerful cultural attitudes and assumptions arising from the sedentism and migration duality of agricultural societies. This includes hostility towards wild nature, the right to property, boundaries and enclosure, perpetual progress, exploration and colonisation, economic growth – and even the nation state in politics and dialectics in philosophy.

Ten thousand years after taming the handful of plants and animals we still largely depend on, Homo sapiens has grown to monstrous proportions, a parasite overwhelming its host, a geological force of the ‘Anthropocene Era’. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of the permaculture movement, realised that the only remedy is to for humankind to develop an altogether different relationship with nature. In contrast to the unlikely event when we tamed the grasses, leading to perpetually exhausted monocultures, we need to root our lives in consciously designed complex agricultural ecosystems. One appealing model is the woodland garden, and the introduction to a Plants For A Future book on the subject says:

‘It is evident that plants can provide us with the majority of our needs, and in a way that cares for the health of the planet. A wide range of plants can be grown to meet all our food needs and many other commodities, whilst also providing a diversity of habitats for native flora and fauna. With a rapidly growing global population and increasingly unpredictable climate, food security has become a serious concern. There are over 20,000 species of edible plants known in the world, yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food. Large areas of land devoted to single crops increase dependence upon the intervention of chemicals and intensive control methods, with the added threat of soil depletion and the development of chemical-resistant insects and new diseases. More diversity of crops is urgently needed, and some of the lesser known plants in this book may have a useful part to play in future food production systems.’ (Woodland Gardening, p. 3)[16]

There is work to be done and no time to lose. The lesser-known plants we need to bring into our designs for the ‘permanent agriculture’ of the future need developing and testing, along the lines of the Permaculture Association’s very promising LAND project It is often said that ‘permaculture’s not just gardening’, which is true. What is also true and vital is that without the gardening it’s not permaculture.

Works Cited

Bellwood, Peter, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008 [2005])
Bellwood, Peter, First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013)
Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011)
LAND project,
Lymbery, Philip, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat (London: Bloomsbury2014)
Marsh, Christine, ‘Permaculture and Tagore’,
Mollison, Bill and David Holmgren, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (Tyalgum, NSW, Australia, 1990 [1978])
Plants For A Future, Woodland Gardening: Designing a Low Maintenance, sustainable Edible Woodland Garden with Fruit and Nut Trees, Shrubs, Herbs, Vines and Perennial Vegetables (Dawlish, Devon: Plants For A Future, 2013)
Plants For A Future,
Ruddiman, William F., ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago’, Climatic Change, 61 (2003), 261–293.
Transition Town Totnes,

 Unit 4: Permaculture (and) Religion

This article is a contribution to the often contentious discussion about whether or not religion (and/or spirituality, metaphysics, mysticism, god(s) or goddess(es) and associated writings, rituals and images) is/are – or should be – part of permaculture. My own position, during twenty years of being interested in permaculture as a movement for radical world change, has tended to be that attention being given to all this spirituality stuff does more harm than good.[1] I now think there may be a case for seeing permaculture as religious, even as a religion, in the original sense of a shared understanding that binds a community together.

The religiousness of permaculture comes with its ethical principles: ‘Care for the earth; Care for people; Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus’.[2] Caring for people means being sensitive to their needs and desires, including their faith in god and receptivity to religious ideas.[3] Hence we should respect or at least tolerate all the various kinds of subjective beliefs people hold dear, and perhaps look for some core belief at the heart of all those.

In his influential book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture, examines the ‘spiritual dimensions’ of permaculture early on in his chapter on the ethics. He writes that ‘beliefs about a higher purpose in nature’ have been an ‘aspect of sustainable cultures’ of the past which we ignore ‘at our peril’. Holmgren may have been showing respect for people who feel this way, but he also mentions his own experience, following his ‘atheist upbringing’, of being gradually, through permaculture, ‘drawn towards some sort of spiritual awareness and perspective’.[4]

When I was considering writing something about ‘permaculture and spirituality’, I searched the internet and found a discussion on this topic initiated two years ago by Craig Mackintosh of the Australian Permaculture Research Institute, which provoked hundreds of comments, generally agreeing with his view that the airing of personal spiritual beliefs – some used phrases like ‘hippy woo-woo’ – puts people off permaculture, and that teachers especially must concentrate on the design science. The divisiveness of this issue: the spectrum of condescension, is concerning.[5]

My search also brought up an article by a permaculture teacher who welcomes the Mackintosh post and the views it provoked, cheerfully admitting his own lack of sympathy with ‘that set of credulity’ known as ‘New Age Spirituality’. He goes on to take issue with Holmgren and others on the notion that there have been human cultures which were sustainable in the long term.[6] This is certainly what I have found while carrying out research into past and present problems of land degradation. It seems to me conceivable that people resorted to appeals to higher powers when access to resources was becoming insecure. It would be when prey species were becoming scarce due to over-hunting that people would draw their images on cave walls to conjure their return. Similarly, when extensive forest clearance for agriculture changed the climate to alternating floods and drought, people might well resort to appealing to a rain god in the sky.[7] The view that the ways we meet our needs only became unsustainable with the advent of urban industrial society is wrong. A useful book on how destructive our species has been for perhaps 100,000 years is Tim Flannery’s Future Eaters, which Holmgren mentions once, but not in this context.[8]

There is a way to reconcile – and at the same time challenge – the positions for and against spirituality having a place in permaculture. Firstly we need to blur the distinction between religion and anthropology, in a similar way to the observation that Hinduism ‘is really an anthropological process to which, by a strange irony of fate, the name of religion has been given’.[9] Secondly we should at least be open to accepting the pretty strong evidence that there have never been any older cultures which were ecologically sustainable in the long term. Then we can identify permaculture as the religion/anthropology of the future, which is consciously and deliberately headed for the first time towards achieving sustainability. This implies collective commitment and a period of planned transition.

Whilst our species has always destroyed its resource base in the long term, human groups and their complex cultures have survived for very long periods of time in different parts of the world. There has been no lack of permanent cultures. Our species is inherently social, and to understand ourselves we need to study the history of human cultures, probing deep into the past before we were literate or even capable of speech.[10] From that perspective it is somewhat puzzling that most of the people responding to the Mackintosh post see religion, spirituality and all that, as something personal, and hence not part of permaculture. Interestingly, the kind of religiousness sometimes called ‘scientism’ comes through in the discussion.[11] A search for ‘science’ brings up over four hundred matches in the three hundred responses, so it seems that permaculturists believe in science, specifically ‘design science’. Seeing permaculture as scientific evidently validates it in many people’s minds.

I contributed an article earlier in this series on ‘Permaculture and Tagore’ ( about Tagore’s practical efforts over fifty years to revive traditional Indian society which had been severely disrupted by British rule:

[Tagore’s] remedy for a broken society was to heal it from within. Cooperation was the key. People must get together in their local communities to help each other and themselves. To give them a start, they would need advice and expertise, suitable training and education, health and welfare provision, affordable finance, and encouragement towards developing participative government and local conflict resolution. Most importantly for Tagore, to counter fatalism and apathy their spirits must be raised, by reviving traditional arts and crafts, music and story-telling, fairs and festivities. Tagore’s motivation changed over the course of his rural reconstruction efforts: initially he felt sympathy and a sense of responsibility as a landlord, next he tried to set out a national programme of constructive self government, lastly he pinned his hopes on bringing about change through education.

Tagore ultimately failed in his efforts because there was a tide of change towards a modern western model of society. Tagore became a celebrity in 1913 after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for a collection of devotional poems called Gitanjali. This gave him opportunities to go on lectures tours in Europe and America, and he published the texts of his talks in five books.[12] There is only one essay in this collection which relates directly to his rural reconstruction work.[13] His main theme was his concern over divisions in modern society. In his very first lecture he talked of how we ‘divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature’.[14] In a lecture he gave over twenty times in America he said:

In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision. Obviously God made man to be human; but this modern product has such marvellous square-cut finish, savouring of gigantic manufacture, that the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in his own divine image.[15]

Tagore was seen in the West as an eastern mystic, and his language suggests he was a monotheist, who ‘believed in’ a God. However, he identified the theme which had run through his talks in the West as the ‘Religion of Man’, which was closer to anthropology than to religion as understood in the West.[16] Tagore’s father was a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a form of monotheistic reformed Hinduism, with Christian Unitarian and Sufi influences, but drawing on the ancient teachings called the Upanisads. In an authoritative outline of the philosophy of the Upanisads, they are described as ‘a system of intelligent (personalistic) monism’.[17] Despite Tagore’s theistic language, his ‘Religion of Man’, his anthropology, is monistic and personalistic.[18]

The concept of monism is key to understanding how permaculture may be a religion-cum-anthropology. The Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that monism is a term for the idea that there can only be one kind of self-subsistent, real thing: ‘Monism finds one where dualism finds two’. Physicalist monism is ‘the doctrine that everything that exists is physical, ‘contrasted with mind-body dualism’ and with ‘absolute idealism’.[19]

Tagore’s monism is different again. In a conversation between Tagore and Albert Einstein in 1930, which has fascinated scholars around the world, Tagore argues that ‘the truth of the Universe is human truth.’ He explains that ‘humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living solidarity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe’ and ‘if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing’.[20]

Tagore concludes his discussion with Einstein by stating that his religion is ‘the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit, in my own individual being’. The same idea is central to the Upanisads, which present ‘the world of experience as a rational whole’.[21] One of the key ideas in these ancient teaching is the reconciliation between the personal and the universal, expressed in Sanskrit as tat tvam asi, or ‘That art thou’.[22]

There is a danger of interpreting Tagore’s encounter with Einstein as mysticism meeting new science, and of its becoming entangled with the distorted fragments of Indian religious tradition incorporated into western orientalism and esotericism.[23] Tagore criticised science on its own terms, informed by his lifelong fascination with scientific speculation and discovery.[24] Einstein was a realist, believing that a world exists ‘independent of the human factor’. When challenges on this, Einstein confesses: ‘I cannot prove that my conception is right, but that is my religion’, adding later: ‘Then I am more religious than you are’.

In his Appendix to a translation of the Principal Upanisads, Tagore refers to the people of the period when these texts were written, when the ideas were not abstract but concrete, and realised through life, which is why ‘generations of men in our country, no mere students of philosophy, but seekers of life’s fulfilment, may make living use of the texts, but can never exhaust them of their freshness of meaning’.[25] These unifying ideas were the foundation of many ‘permanent cultures’ through the ages, and one wonders how they were lost in the modern world. The German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach attributes the change to Protestant Christianity, which instituted an individualistic faith, focused on personal salvation, by projecting human ideals onto a transcendent deity.[26] In his conclusion Feuerbach declares what a more mature religion would involve:

The necessary turning-point of history is therefore the open confession, that the consciousness of God is nothing else than the consciousness of the species; that man can and should raise himself only above the limits of his individuality, and not above the laws, the positive essential conditions of his species; that there is no other essence which man can think, dream of imagine, feel, believe in, wish for, love and adore as the absolute, than the essence of human nature itself. [...] Including external nature; for as man belongs to the essence of Nature,—in opposition to common materialism; so Nature belongs to the essence of man [...]. Only by uniting man with Nature can we conquer the supranaturalistic egoism of Christianity.[27]

There are benefits and penalties to adopting personalistic monism as the religion and shared truth of permaculture. One benign outcome is ‘unity in diversity’: we must welcome the whole range of human cultures, faiths and practices. This was vitally important to Tagore, who aimed to provide in his ‘Eastern University’ ‘for the co-ordinate study of all these different cultures,—the Vedic, the Puranic, the Buddhist, the Jain, the Islamic, the Sikh and the Zoroastrian[, t]he Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan’ and also Western culture.[28] He followed the Indian tradition of people sharing in each other’s festivals and introduced Christo Utsab on 25 December 1910, which is still celebrated at Santiniketan ( . Another benefit is the immortality which follows from what Tagore described as the reconciliation between the personal and the universal. Feuerbach realised this too:

The human lives eternally. Therefore humans die,
For the eternal is nothing but the death of all that is temporal.
True, you will turn to dust someday; but whatever noble thoughts you had,
Whatever you have deeply loved never passes.[29]

The less comfortable consequence of this truth is that it makes us jointly responsible for the whole prehistory and history of human destructiveness. We have taken advantage of, and eventually exhausted, a series of resource bonanzas: the megafauna we hunted to extinction; the forests, soils and ecosystems we destroyed and degraded as pastoralists and farmers; and the sequestered solar energy from hundreds of millions of years ago that has powered our industrial revolution.

The current bonanza is information communications technologies (ICTs). If permaculture is to be a religion which achieves unity between people and planet, this bonanza is a useful and challenging focus. The internet and mobile communications appear to bring people together, providing new opportunities for spreading permaculture ideas and education. But ICTs are unsustainable. The enormous and ever-growing data centres and server farms are responsible for surprisingly large greenhouse gas emissions, and ICTs are reliant on scarce and, in some cases, toxic mineral resources perpetually thrown away in obsolete devices.[30]

The internet is a hybrid made up of users and machinery. It is only the latest manifestation of the Western ‘machinery of commerce and politics’ which Tagore saw as dehumanising a century ago. Applying the ‘design science’ of permaculture enables practical steps to be taken to address this alienation. We know that the way to recover our collective humanity is to work at the local level. One powerful idea in the Transition portfolio is the ‘Energy Descent Action Plan’ for the local economy, whereby fossil fuels are used to prepare for doing without them in twenty to thirty years time.[31] Surely a component of this will have to be a planned withdraw from ICTs.

I suggested earlier that permaculture has the potential for being the religion/anthropology of the future, which is consciously and deliberately headed for the first time towards achieving sustainability. Religion has united and sustained permanent cultures for millennia. Only quite recently has religion become a personal thing: ‘supranaturalistic egoism’ as Feuerbach called it. Tagore’s religion is ‘the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit, in my own individual being’. To understand oneself in that way means taking responsibility for the past, present and future of the human species, without blame or condescension towards others, caring for planet and people, united in permaculture religion.

Works Cited

Allegro, John M. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970)
Aravamudan, Srinivas, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)
Bichitra Online Variorum,
Blackburn, Simon, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Christanand, M.P., The Philosophy of Indian Monotheism (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1979)
David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
Donald, Merlin, Origins of the Human Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)
Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Essence of Christianity, trans by George Eliot (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957 [1944])
Feuerbach, Ludwig, Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, trans. by James A. Massey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980 [1830])
Flannery, Tim, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (Sydney: New Holland, 1997)
Hindupedia, [accessed 7/3/12]
Holmgren, David, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Holmgren Design Services, 2002)
Hopkins, Rob, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2011)
Hume Robert Ernest, ed. and trans., The Thirteen Principal Upanishads: Translated from the Sanskrit (London: Oxford University Press, 1934)
Lawrence & Wishart, ‘Statement on the Collected Works of Marx and Engels’, [13/5/14]).
Leddza, 8 December 2013, [link]
Marcham, Jessie, ‘What can permaculture say to god?’,
Marsh, Chris, ‘Honouring the Chicken’ [link].
Marx Internet Archive,
Marx, Kark and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress, 1952 [1848])
Marx, Karl, ‘Theses On Feuerbach’ (1845), [accessed 8 May 2014]
Marx, Karl, letter to Ludwig Feuerbach, 11 August 1844, in Marx Engels Collected Works (Lawrence & Wishart) [Accessed 18/4/2014 at Marx Internet Archive ( but no longer available.]
Said, Edward, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003 [1978])
Strouts, Graham, [link]
Tagore, Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922),
Tagore, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1917)
Tagore, The Religion of Man: Being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931)
Technology Review,
The Global Connectivity Group, ‘ICTs, the Internet and Sustainability’ [13/5/14]
Wasson, R. Gordon’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, [1966])

[1] Chris Marsh, ‘Honouring the Chicken’ [link], where I express a similar position to Graham Strouts, in ‘Does Spirituality have a place in Permaculture?’ [link].

[2] David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Holmgren Design Services, 2002), p. 1.

[3] Jessie Marcham sees God is ‘a core part of our lives’ and argues that in the permaculture movement ‘it could be helpful to make our discussion of God a little more explicit’. (Jessie Marcham, ‘What can permaculture say to god?’, The sense that god exists, and receptivity to religious ideas, is recognised by cognitive science as a natural feature of human psychology. (‘Losing Our Religion’, New Scientist, 3 May 2014, 30-5.)

[4] Holmgren, pp. 2-3.

[5] Craig Mackintosh, ‘Permaculture and Metaphysics’, [link]

[6] Graham Strouts, [link]

[7] John M. Allegro makes a case for Christianity deriving from an ancient fertility cult in his fascinating though highly controversial book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970). The uses of mind altering substances to communicate with higher powers is also the subject of R. Gordon Wasson’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, [1966]).

[8] Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (Sydney: New Holland, 1997) Holmgren, p. 168.

[9] M.P. Christanand, The Philosophy of Indian Monotheism (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1979), p. 28. (Quote from Govinda Das, Hinduism (Madras: Natesan, 1924), p. 45.)

[10] Merlin Donald, Origins of the Human Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)

[11] See ‘scientism’ in Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 330.

[12] Sadhana (1913), Personality and Nationalism (1917), Creative Unity (1922) and The Religion of Man (1931)These are all available to download: Sadhana: ; Personality: ; Nationalism 1917: ; Creative Unity: ; The Religion of Man: .

[13] ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity, pp. 169-203.

[14] Sadhana, p. 4.

[15] Tagore, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1917), p. 6.

[16] The Indian word for religion is dharma but dharma and religion don’t mean the same thing: ‘The Sanskrit word Dharma has no direct translation into English. Among other things, it can be thought of as righteousness in thought, word, and action. It comes from the root Dhr, which means to uphold, sustain, or uplift. Thus another interpretation of the word in English would be ‘the collection of natural and universal laws that uphold, sustain, or uplift’, i.e. law of being; law of nature; individual nature; prescribed duty; social and personal duties; moral code; civil law; code of conduct; morality; way of life; practice; observance; justice; righteousness; religion; religiosity; harmony. (  [accessed 7/3/12]

[17] The Upanisads were written about the sixth century B,C., and so were almost contemporaneous with Pythagoras, Confucius and Zoroaster. (Robert Ernest Hume, ‘An Outline of the Philosophy of the Upanisads’, in The Thirteen Principal Upanishads: Translated from the Sanskrit, ed. and trans. by Robert Ernest Hume (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), pp. 1-72 (pp. 1-2).)

[18] ‘Tagore is a monist, though he does not deny the reality of the world [...] and denounces the negative attitude towards the world. [...] Tagore’s absolutism is [...] personalistic’. (P.T. Raju, ‘Contemporary Indian Thought’, in History of Philosophy Eastern and Western, Volume One, ed. by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952), pp. 526-36 (p. 532).)

[19] Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 238.

[20] Tagore, ‘Note of the Nature of Reality’ in The Religion of Man: Being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931), pp. 222-5.

[21] Hume, p. 2.

[22] Hume, p. 32, Sanskrit Index, pp. 563-6 (p. 564).

[23] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003 [1978]); Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

[24] In late life he even wrote a science primer for students at his school and university: Tagore, Our Universe, trans. by Indu Dutt (Mumbai: Jaico, 1999 [1937])

[25] Tagore, Appendix A, in The Principal Upanisads, trans. by, ed. by S. Radhakrishnan, pp. 939-43.

[26] Feuerbach’s critique of theistic religion is lengthy and laborious, but worth a good look. Fortunately – like many of the major texts – it is available freely online at [link]. It is well to make clear at this point that monism is not the same as monotheism. Monotheism is belief in only one god, but the separation of body and soul, Earth and Heaven – and also good and evil, salvation and damnation – is thoroughly dualistic. There have been monotheistic, and hence dualistic, belief systems in India, notably the Brahmo Samaj, a reformed Hinduism influenced by Christianity, established by Rammohan Roy and continued by Tagore’s father Devendranath. Popular Hinduism is polytheistic, with its traditional epics, rites and festivals involving various divine beings or avatars.

[27] Feuerbach, ‘Concluding Application’, in The Essence of Christianity, pp. 270-8 (p. 270). Feuerbach was expressing his hopes for a future which was never realised. The scholars of the day rejected his insights, apart from Karl Marx who was thrilled with them, expressing his ‘great respect’ and ‘love’ for Feuerbach in a letter in August 1844, and telling him of hundreds of communists having lectures on the Wesen des Christenthums, and being very responsive.[27] In 1848 Marx and Engels published their Manifesto of the Communist Party, which concludes with the famous slogan ‘Working men of all Countries, Unite!’ (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress, 1952 [1848]), p. 96.)

[28] Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 167-203 (p. 195).

[29] Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘On Death and Eternity’, Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, trans. by James A. Massey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980 [1830])

[30] The Global Connectivity Group, ‘ICTs, the Internet and Sustainability’, [13/5/14]

Not even the benefits of the internet are sustainable. Access to free information we value is either restricted or being withdrawn. The issue of restricted or free access is much discussed. The not-for-profit research archive JSTOR moved towards free public access, but with restrictions. ( ) Until recently, scholars and activists have taken for granted free and downloadable access to all the works of Marx and Engels, but a huge portion of the Marx Internet Archive ( ) was ordered to be removed on 30 April 2014, for copyright and commercial reasons. (‘Lawrence & Wishart statement on the Collected Works of Marx and Engels’, [13/5/14]). Technology to allow internet access but preventing downloading is becoming more common, see e.g. . Advances in the handling of large textual databases is enabling surveillance and data mining of our personal data by official bodies and commercial interests.

[31] Rob Hopkins, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2011), pp. 235-8.

[1] Around fifty people had attended an earlier ‘public’ meeting in Exeter in June 2013, with a guest speaker from the LU central organising committee. Since then, a similar number had joined the Exeter and East Devon LU mailing list.

[2] ‘In Grave Danger of Falling Food’ is available on Youtube, [28/1/14]

[3] Holmgren, ‘Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future’, [30/1/14]

[4] At any time, those ‘inside’ include members of the capitalist and working classes; ‘outside’ means (largely) self-sufficient or engaged in the ‘informal’ economy (part of which is the illegal ‘black’ economy). In the Marxist model, the informal economy serves as a ‘reserve army of labour’, which is drawn into and out of the labour force according to capitalism’s regular economic cycles, and also performs voluntary functions such as child raising and care of the old and sick. (I think George mentioned this rule-of-thumb in one of her talks, and regrettably I cannot find a written reference.)

[5] I take issue with Holmgren’s reference to ‘arcane but defunct economic theories’ in ‘Crash on Demand’.

[6] See Steve Jones, ‘Permaculture and Politics’ with video ‘Occupy Permaculture’, [17/1/14]

[7] ‘Permaculture and Tagore’s Faith in Humankind’ will be the subject of my next article in this series. As a taster which is relevant to this discussion, see Tagore’s poem ‘They Work’ (1941), .

[10] ‘Anti-political’ can mean not ‘Party political’, whether Green or Leftist; also not reliant on influencing political leaders at national or international levels; also not understood in revolutionary terms, whether Marxist or Anarchist. Some of us, of course, take the view that everything in human life is political.

[11] An indication of Tagore’s genius is given by the tribute to mark Tagore’s 80th birthday by Ramananda Chatterjee, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’ at .

[12] Vandana Shiva, ‘How economic growth has become anti-life’, The Guardian, 1 November 2013, ( [20/2/14])

[13] The term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ was coined in 1923 by Australia archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, and is still used by archaeologists of the Old World. American archaeologists use the term ‘Formative’ or ‘Early Agricultural’. (Bellwood (2013), p. 133.)

[14] The authority and also fascination of Bellwood’s early farming dispersal hypothesis derives from his multidisciplinary approach, which combines archaeology, linguistics and human genetics. Both books are impressive works of scholarship, each with detailed notes and some 1500 works cited, but perfectly accessible to the lay reader. Bellwood may have concerns but he does not indulge in polemics, except of a mild kind such as a mention of ‘our overcrowded and highly stressed world today’. First Migrants is usefully also available as an e-book.

[15] Bellwood mentions the argument put forward by William F. Ruddiman that early agriculture in Eurasia, including the start of forest clearance by 8000 years ago and of rice irrigation by 5000 years ago, caused the release of sufficient greenhouse gases to alter the climate, long before the anthropogenic era 150 to 200 years ago, when the industrial revolution began producing CO2 and CH4 at rates sufficient to alter their compositions in the atmosphere. (Bellwood 2013 130-1 citing William F. Ruddiman, ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago’, Climatic Change, 61 (2003), 261–293.)

[16] The pioneer who has gone furthest in the perennial agriculture direction is Ken Fern, founder of Plants For A Future (PFAF). Fern’s legacy has been retained and enhanced in the form of an online database containing the details of 7000 unusual plants, all of which are edible or have other uses. This information is made freely available to the public under a Creative Commons Licence. The volumes of traffic on the PFAF website ( are impressive and rising. The most recent report indicates that over 180,000 people a month viewed over 400,000 pages, with a daily high of 6,580 visits.

Unit 5: Is it Time for a Permaculture World?

Chris Marsh, 31/1/15

Ever since hearing about permaculture 25 years ago I’ve wondered how it was going to take off in a big way and save the world. It turns out that the answer lies in permaculture ethics: ‘care of the earth’, ‘care of people’ and ‘setting limits to population and consumption’ (or ‘fair shares’) (Mollison 1-9). Effectively, permaculture is the opposite to conventional economics, because we have ethics, they have ‘externalities’.


Professors of Economics, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, mention ‘externalities’ as the term economists use for effects like pollution, overuse of resources and failure to meet social needs, with the word indicating that market decisions tend not to take these effects into account unless forced to by law and public opinion (82, 92). Democratic governments, elected by the public, make laws and enforce regulations, but public opinion is fickle and can be manipulated, and governments tend to bow to economic interests rather than public ones. Economic growth can raise household incomes and help remove poverty, but Drèze and Sen point out that India, ‘the world’s largest democracy’, fails to deliver on what we would call earth care and people care, because the benefits of growth are not spread fairly (248). Interestingly, the word ‘externalities’ does not appear in the index of Ha-Joon Chang’s useful little book, Economics: The User’s Guide. The effects are mentioned, in a chapter entitled ‘Running Out of the Planet?: Taking Environmental Sustainability Seriously’, but the author makes a case for more economic growth being the answer, especially for developing countries (268-73). What becomes apparent is that economic growth can benefit or harm people and planet – because ‘externalities’ don’t really count – so we are faced with chronic uncertainty. However, another book on economics, Wolfgang Streek’s Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, suggests that an end to uncertainty is fast approaching.

The End of Democratic Capitalism

For decades there’s been talk of globalisation bringing about the ‘End of the Nation’, the subject of a major article a few months ago in New Scientist. Recent studies by economists and political scientists show how ideologues of the neoliberal capitalist system advocate the rolling back of the state, and that state bureaucracies are weakening and national governments are losing power.

In Buying Time, Streek examines the crisis history of late capitalism since the 1970s and concludes that ‘democracy [has split] from capitalism through the splitting of the economy from democracy’ (5). What has happened is that governments have switched constituencies, away from voters towards creditors: ‘from tax state to debt state’ as Streek puts it (72-5). We can no longer rely on ‘law and public opinion’ to impose ethical standards on the economy. Streeck sets out a political consequence of the long financial and fiscal crisis as the emergence of the authoritarian ‘consolidation state’ in Europe (97). Streeck’s suggestion for ‘buying time’ is that national governments should withdraw from the European Monetary Union in order to be able to boost their economies by devaluing their currencies; an interesting scenario, given Greece having elected a leftist anti-austerity party into government, at present insisting they want to keep the euro.

These changes have effects locally, nationally and globally. At the start of their term of office, the leaders of the UK Coalition government presented a vision of ‘The Big Society’ and a ‘Localism agenda’, presented as ‘the key to economic, social and political success in the future’. Hidden in the rhetoric are the key phrases ‘small government’, ‘a shrinking of the state’ and ‘an ethic of volunteerism’ (  ). Responsibilities are devolved (giving local decision makers what Isaiah Berlin termed ‘negative freedom’), but with ‘austerity’ and cuts funding does not follow. This means that local people are faced with an enormous challenge: finding solutions to a whole raft of problems born out of the national and global economic crisis.

Alternative Economics

There are a few enlightened economists with constructive solutions to the long crisis. In his books Capitalism Hits the Fan, and Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (also in his lecture: ), Richard Wolff sets out his answer to the extreme and deepening inequalities of global capitalism as ‘Workers Self-Directed Enterprises’ or producer co-ops. A weakness of Wolff’s proposal is that it seems to depend on obtaining Federal funding from taxation.

In their scholarly study A Post-Capitalist Politics, J.K. Gibson-Graham recommend ‘place-based activism’ (5) and they set out the principles of ‘intentional community economies’ with a number of real examples (165-96). The vision of ‘post-capitalism’ echoes the authors’ earlier feminist critique of the ‘End of Capitalism’. It is strong on vision and imagination, but with a practical orientation and an emphasis on diversity. (Sadly one of the authors died in 2010.)

Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, in his World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, sets out an alternative ‘Plan B’, an ‘economy for the twenty-first century’ (99-180), and in his final chapter says that such a plan is ‘our only hope’ (183). He urges readers to get informed, become politically active and get together to put pressure on their political representatives. So, like Wolff, Brown relies on a ‘democratic revolution’. Interestingly, Brown describes one form of popular response which does not require political action at national or international levels, the ‘Local Food Movement’ (175-8).

Although he is not a trained economist, I will include Rob Hopkins and the Transition Movement under the heading ‘alternative economics’, because Hopkins also has a Plan B, aimed at addressing austerity by encouraging local entrepreneurship. All these alternatives depend on local involvement, understanding and good will, acting as the equivalent of the ‘law and public opinion’ which Drèze and Sen mention as the guardians of ‘externalities’.

The Problem is the Solution

Anyone concerned about the state of the world today can probably nominate the worst effects or threats in their estimation. Many will say the Climate Crisis, others the major Species Extinction event which is underway. I would nominate land degradation: soil erosion, salinisation, devastated forests, spreading deserts. I have thought that Bill Mollison, co-founder of the Permaculture Movement, would also put the land first, given that the first permaculture ethical principle is ‘earth care’.

If everyone were gainfully employed in the neoliberal economy with its laissez-faire market democracy – which disregards ‘externalities’ – there would be no hope for climate, species or land. But there’s also a social crisis which could be an opportunity to address the others. Streeck writes about ‘an abandoned underclass’, and ‘diffuse expectations of socia1 justice still present in sections of the population’ which may ‘provide an impetus for anarchistic protest movements’. He refers chillingly to methods developed in the US to manage this underclass which Europe could adopt. Observing this situation with permaculture in mind, we would see those people as a potential resource, available to take part in building ‘intentional community economies’, to use Gibson-Graham’s phrase, so that ‘the problem is the solution’. Looked at globally or nationally, this would appear to be an enormous challenge, but taken one town or village or city neighbourhood at a time, it is not impossible. The question now is whether permaculture is ready to take it on.

The Trojan Horse

Rob Hopkins has said in an interview that Transition was ‘designed as a Trojan horse’ to smuggle in Permaculture, as a way of scaling up ‘a bottom-up, grassroots and solution-led approach’ which has tended to be ‘niche and fringe’ (Gordon-Farleigh, The ‘niche and fringe’ tendency has always bothered me, because I came to permaculture after spending several years researching and teaching on land degradation worldwide, and the concept of ‘permanent agriculture’, already thought out and put into practice by the founders, promised to be the solution.

When I got involved in permaculture in Britain I found that most of the early adopters had little or no access to land. They were generally not home owners with gardens. A few had tiny smallholdings in the Celtic fringes. My hopes were dashed of bringing permaculture onto the gardens of England – a potential plot of about a million acres. ‘Permaculture’s not just gardening!’ was the mantra, and people were applying the design approach to anything and everything. I’m afraid I was disappointed and critical of all that – but I was wrong. Permaculture has to prove itself, by taking two directions. Of course it has to show that the design approach gets results when applied to agriculture, because food is the No. 1 human need. But it is also necessary to prove that, given any package of needs and wants, permaculture design can be employed to find out how best to achieve it, using the available resources of time, skills and interests, whether or not land or food is involved. My judgement is that this has been done. Permaculture has proved itself on both counts. There have been 25 years (or more) of the ‘niche and fringe’ and ‘not just gardening’ applications, people discovering the brilliance and joy of permaculture, where a bunch of friends 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.

More recently, the question of how permaculture ecological design can successfully feed people in the UK has been answered. Andy Goldring, Permaculture Association CEO, addressed the 2015 Oxford Real Farming Conference on ‘Initiating Permaculture & Integrating Research’ and ‘addressing the data gap’: amassing the evidence from permaculture plots and LAND centres. It has been known for some time that permaculture works to feed people and rebuild communities in deprived areas and on marginal land. Recently there has been a call for funding for the republication of a Tropical Permaculture Guidebook, providing ‘knowledge, techniques and skills that will reduce the severity of global climate change and provide adaptation and resilience knowledge and skills to those impacted the most by climate change and who are the least able to afford expensive solutions’.

Life in its Completeness

I have mentioned my disappointment 25 years ago at permaculture being ‘not just gardening’. I stayed in touch, but I also turned aside to find out about the rural reconstruction work carried out by Rabindranath Tagore from the 1890s to 1930s. I heard about Tagore at the same time as I first heard of permaculture, and I saw parallels between them. Tagore believed that people should be given the freedom to work cooperatively towards self-reliance at the local community level. His focus was on rebuilding village society in India, disrupted by British rule, with the aim of bringing what he called ‘life in its completeness’. Tagore regarded the ‘modern age’ as a phase during which humanity took a wrong turning, led by the West but dragging Asia after it. In his last public address ‘Crisis in Civilization’, Tagore indicated that he foresaw a ‘new chapter in history after the cataclysm is over’, the ‘cataclysm’ being the system we live under, which puts profit before planet and people.

In his essay ‘City and Village’, Tagore’s aims appear very modest. He explained that rather than think of the whole country, it is best to start in a small way: ‘If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established’. Historian Uma Das Gupta has described Tagore as ‘exhausted and weak’ and clearly in despair in the 1930s, because those working for him had reorganized the project ‘as a business’, with profit-making dairy units and cottage industries, to the detriment of Tagore’s aim of building village self-reliance (376).

Tagore, of course, knew nothing of climate change and peak oil, the drivers of the Transition movement. He might have felt uneasy about Hopkins’ Plan B, with its emphasis on local entrepreneurialism. I wonder about Hopkins’ notion of ‘scaling up’ permaculture from being ‘niche and fringe’, which might result in spreading the ideas and practices too thin. Tagore’s vision was to bring ‘life in its completeness’ in one locality at a time. It is no longer acceptable to ignore ‘externalities’ such as land degradation, pollution and waste, species extinctions and social deprivation. Taking responsibility locally is the only way to ensure ‘ethics’ come first. The shrinking debt state divorced from democracy, official approval of a Localism agenda, and permaculture design having proved its efficacy, means that it is time for permaculture to take off in a big way and save the world.


Works Cited

Berlin, Isaiah, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969)

Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011)

Chang, Ha-Joon, Economics: The User’s Guide (London: Pelican, 2014)

Das Gupta, Uma, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921-41’, Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78.

Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions (London: Penguin, 2014)

Gibson-Graham, J.K., A Post-Capitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006)


Hopkins, Rob, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How local action can change the world (Cambridge: Green, 2013)

Localism Agenda,

MacKenzie, Debora, ‘End of the Nation’, New Scientist, 6 September 2014, pp. 30-7.

Mollison, Bill, Introduction to Permaculture (Tyalgum, NSW: Tagari, 1991)

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Tagore, Rabindranath, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-22.

—‘Crisis in Civilization’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 353-9.

Wolff, Richard, Capitalism Hits The Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (Northampton, MA, 2013)

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Unit 6: Plants For A Permaculture Future: Towards Tagorean World Change?

Christine Marsh, Presentation for Workshop at International Permaculture Conference, London, September 2015 ( )


I first encountered both Permaculture and the work of Rabindranath Tagore in 1990 and saw resonances between them. In 2005 I became a Trustee of the charity Plants For A Future ( ) At the International Permaculture Conference ( ) I am aiming to interest participants at this workshop in looking again at Tagore’s alternative to capital-nation-state.


The workshop is an opportunity to discuss ways of building on the current collaboration between Plants For A Future (PFAF) and the Permaculture Association. We will discuss how the wider international Permaculture movement (and the Transition movement, which has many similar aims) can best take advantage of the information in PFAF’s Plants database and connect with its worldwide user community of gardeners and specialist growers.

PFAF is a UK-based Charity whose main aims are to provide information and encourage research on ecologically sustainable horticulture, as an integral part of designs involving high species diversity and permaculture principles. PFAF now provides free access to an information database of over 7,000 edible and otherwise useful plants suitable for growing outdoors in a temperate climate. It also publishes books on edible plants, trees and shrubs, and woodland gardening. The database was originally created 15 years ago by Ken and Addy Fern, who planted and experimented with 1,500 species of edible plants, mainly perennials, on their site in Cornwall. Analytics on site usage show that around a million people each year visit the site and make use of the database and associated website.

[slides 1 & 2]

My name is Chris Marsh and I have been a trustee of the charity Plants For A Future for 10 years. The Charity was founded in 1996 to support the work of Ken Fern, plants researcher. Currently Plants For A Future supports an online database of 7,000 useful plants, freely available and accessed by over a million users each year worldwide.

Plants For A Future has had links with permaculture from the start, and we’ve had a collaboration arrangement with Chris Warburton-Brown, Research Coordinator at the Permaculture Association, for 3 years. But Plants For A Future is not a permaculture project, and most of the users of the database are just interested in plants.

But the Plants For A Future database has huge potential as a resource for the design of diverse polycultures such as woodland gardens. The question is: How can permaculture designers make better use of this valuable resource?

[slide 3]

The Ferns’ 28 acre site in Cornwall is still called ‘The Field’ because in 1989 when they bought it, it was degraded agricultural land on an exposed, sloping site.

Now it is a beautiful and productive oasis, half natural woodland, half diverse food forest.

Over 10 years Ken planted 1,500 species of plants with edible and other uses.

From the start the site was vegan-organic – growing plants without depending in any way on domesticated livestock. Plants-based compost was used, no manure (other than human), no grazing. Barriers against rabbits and deer were installed where necessary. Vegan-organics is an ethical imperative for the Ferns; it’ll be a practical necessity in the future – an issue I’ll come to later.

Next we come to Phase 2, Plants For A Future as it is now.

[slide 4]

Plants For A Future became online and international in 1996 when Ken Fern and colleagues set up a website and database with details of the 1,500 species he had planted. Ken also carried out desk research and added details of other useful species.

When the new trustees of the Charity took over in 2005 there were 7,000 useful plants. Since then we have redesigned the website and further developed the database. Images have been added, the detailed information has been checked, and hundreds of new species have been researched and are about to be added to the database.

[slide 5]

This is an example of the high quality plants information provided by the database:

Elaeagnus x ebbingei: commonly grown as a hedge in gardens where it forms an extremely wind- resistant screen 6ft or more high. […] about 15ft tall and wide [..] extremely tolerant […] full sun, deep shade and most soils […] dislike[s] waterlogged soils. It flowers in late autumn and ripens its fruit in late Spring, long before the traditional early fruits such as strawberries and unripe gooseberries. When fully ripe these fruits have a delicious rich flavour, their single large seed can also be eaten and has a vague hint of peanut in its taste. This plant is an extremely good companion, helping to enrich the soil with nitrogen and thereby boosting the growth of neighbouring plants.’

The entry includes all you need to know about this variety of Elaeagnus; and there are 22 other varieties.

This is just data, bits and bytes, but it’s used by a lot of people. Web analytics show there are two and a half million visits to 5 million pages annually. We hear from some of these users via social media and most of them are not permaculture designers, just plants enthusiasts and researchers.

Highly flexible search facilities have been provided for plants experts, and for designers of polycultures and forest gardens.

[slide 6]

The search facilities allow you to select from over 7000 edible and medicinal plants using criteria including: common and Latin names, keyword, family, habitat and use. The main uses are Edible and Medicinal, plus other practical uses and characteristics.

The facility ‘Search Properties’ allows you to search for a number of plant features at once, for example, for a plant that needs a light sandy soil, is between 1m and 5m high, and likes shade – the database will then present a list of plants that have all three of these features.

We also publish books.

[slide 7]

The words we put on the back cover of our latest book, Edible Perennials, suggests how permaculture designers might use the database.

‘Current interest in forest or woodland garden designs reflects an awareness that permanent mixed plantings are inherently more sustainable than annual monocultures. They safeguard and enrich soil ecosystems, enable plants to form cooperative combinations, make use of layers above and below the soil, and they create benign microclimates which soften winds and recycle the rain. The challenge is productivity: how can yields of useful foods and other useful materials be maximised? Plants For A Future is a resource for discovering some of the answers.’

[slide 8]

My vision for Plants for a Permaculture Future is of millions of local agricultural ecosystems designed to meet local needs using local resources.

Each local design would include one or more areas of land with diverse permanent plantings, and the Plants For A Future database would be an invaluable resource for looking up details of such plantings, allowing designers to select plants for particular uses, suited to situations within an ecological design based on natural models, especially woodland or forest gardens.

‘Millions’ sounds ambitious. It means replicating Ken Fern’s transformation of a patch of degraded land into a food forest all over the world. Ken and others have shown that this is not impossible, and it could be what the world urgently needs.

[slide 9]

Jared Diamond has said that ‘agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race’. Over the course of history, ancient civilisations collapsed when they destroyed or over exploited the forests and soils they depended on. Small scale subsistence agriculture is not much better, Land holdings are tiny, insecure, and get consolidated into industrial monocultures and villagers flee to the city.

This is the root of today’s ecological and social crisis. So what’s the alternative?

[slide 10]

We need to look back to the pioneers: Mollison and Holmgren’s permaculture and Tagore and Elmhirst’s rural reconstruction initiatives.

The Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore – my particular area of study – made his ‘life’s work’ a programme of rural revival in India. Each local community would be self-sufficient and culturally rich; ‘life in its completeness’ as Tagore described it.

Tagore was assisted in this work by the agriculturist and entrepreneur Leonard Elmhirst, who went on to establish the Dartington Hall Trust in Devon, which indirectly gave rise to Transition Town Totnes.

Tagore and Elmhirst achieved great things for half a century each, but both initiatives were overcome by the tides of urbanisation and globalisation.

Their message was ‘back to the village and the forest’. And now may be the time to listen to that message again.

Combining Ken Fern’s researches with permaculture and rural reconstruction could show us how to regenerate the forests destroyed by agriculture.

But could such forests meet the needs of current and future world populations?

[slide 11]

The Ferns’ original design for their 30 acre plot was half natural woodland, half vegan-organic food forest. A social and ecological revolution is needed. If the Ferns’ design were replicated worldwide, would that work?

The Transition approach is crucial: start with a vision of (say) 30 years into the future and make a plan of how to get there. It’s actually quite encouraging to quantify the goal.

The Earth has 12 billion acres of agricultural land – arable & pasture. That’s about 40% of the total land area.

There may be 10 billion people by 2050, which still means over an acre per person.

In theory a vegan diet could support 5 people per acre.

On the size of each community, it’s useful to take Dunbar’s Number of 150, based on his research showing that ‘humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships’.

Seven groups of people that size cooperating together locally would make a typical neighbourhood of around 1,000 people.

That works out as 10 million neighbourhoods, each with one or more areas of diverse perennial plantings in its thousand to 1200 acres.

There are many obvious challenges: getting access to land; the extent of land degradation worldwide; urbanisation; and restrictions on using land for subsistence agriculture rather than for cash crops.

As I said in my introduction I’ve been looking after the charity Plants For A Future for 10 years, seeing that as a Phase 2 of its history. I’d like to think it could be more than an information source for plants enthusiasts. The search facilities are a valuable resource for forest garden designers.

[slide 12]

I have my own vision of the future, inspired by my studies of Rabindranath Tagore, whose ideas were ahead of his time. I’ve always seen his efforts to revive Village India as a form of early permaculture. Relocalisation: back to the village and the forest, sounds utopian but it is the only sure way to sustainability.

These are some of the questions which occur to me, but I’d appreciate your own comments and questions. Thank you.