The Root of all Evil? Some Thoughts About Permaculture, Anarchism and Money

The Root of all Evil? Some Thoughts About Permaculture, Anarchism and Money

The other day I overheard an argument about marathon runner Paula Radcliffe in which she was criticised for her sponsorship by Nestle, a multinational corporation whose poor record on human rights issues is well documented, particularly their marketing of baby milk in ‘Third World’ countries. The retort was that ALL money is tainted with exploitation and oppression, and any form of wealth is ultimately derived from profit garnered by the rich few from the many poor. Another person I recently spoke to expressed the dilemmas he sometimes feels about working for money; “I have serious problems when it comes to doing paid work… I can’t justify selling information when since the advent of the digital age books, movies, music etc can all be reproduced and distributed for next to nothing. Do we, the bearers of great wisdom, make our ideas exclusively available only to those who are able to pay?”

These comments may well strike a chord with a fair percentage of this magazine’s readership, motivated as we are by the nobler values of Earthcare and Peoplecare rather than those of shallow materialism. Indeed until fairly recently they would have summed up my own thoughts and attitudes quite neatly.

Maybe it was a natural reaction to the worst excesses of the ‘greed is good’ philosophy of the Thatcher era, but like many that came up through the eighties from an anarchist or radical green political background, I’ve always had problems with the issues of ‘money’ and ‘economics’. For a long time I internalised an anti-capitalist view that anything to do with money is intrinsically ‘bad’, and that to sell my own creative work was somehow akin to a collusion with the kind of corporate exploitation and oppression found in the grimmer chapters of ‘No Logo’.

But since becoming interested in permaculture, which is about sustainability in all of it’s forms, the concept of ‘Right Livelihood’ is one that has greatly interested me, particularly since producing my book ‘Permaculture A Beginners Guide’, and starting my own modest self-publishing venture, Spiralseed. I’ve begun to see that such an exclusively negative perception of money is just another manifestation of the either/or polarity that is so typical of the disconnected way that our post-industrial culture functions.

There’s so much baggage attached to ‘money’, yet in the end ‘money’ is really nothing more than a token of exchange, a representation of energy. And like water, energy can either flow about, cycling within a sustainable system, performing a multitude of functions and keeping things alive and vibrant. Or else money can be stored and accumulated for it’s own sake, stagnating, stinking and building up dangerous levels of static, festering and becoming a source of obsession like a blocked bowel. Money is undeniably at the root of much social and environmental evil, but in other contexts, it can also be a tool for liberation and empowerment…

Small is beautiful

I like to think of Spiralseed as being a stepping stone towards getting to a situation where I can create my own livelihood, be it through writing, illustration, self-publishing, making rustic wooden furniture, propagating now rare local fruit varieties or permaculture design consultancy and teaching. At the moment however, making a full living is still very much a dream. But the small income I am getting through the books DOES pay for what I’d call my ‘permaculture activities’. If I want to buy plants or trees, or a book, or pay a membership subscription, or go on a weekend course or conference, the money from my book sales and so on now covers that without the kids having to go without shoes…

What’s more, as far as possible, I spend the money from Spiralseed within the permaculture/vegan/local community. If I want trees for the forest garden I’m creating, I’ll buy them from Cool Temperate, a permaculture nursery that both provides a livelihood for it’s workers and conducts research into sustainable food growing systems (especially own rootstock fruit trees & coppice orchards). If I’ve got a printing job I’ll get it done by Footprint Workers Co-op, who are a part of Radical Roots/Cornerstone Co-operative, and again helping Andy & Cath develop THEIR sustainable enterprise. If I want teeshirts printed I’ll get Sunrise Screenprint, a small vegan workers co-op to do the job. The other day Debby and I had a meal out at Cafe Pulse, our local Vegan/Veggie cafe run by our friend Dai. This was paid for by book sales- in turn, Dai was kind enough to host a book launch party in the cafe free of charge last year. Dai has also expressed an interest in buying my surplus blackcurrant crop from my forest garden this year…

So am I a capitalist running dog forcing people to pay for the knowledge and skills I have to offer, or am I using money to help create abundance for myself and others, and lubricate social systems and the ‘green economy’?

Trade is in many ways the very thing that pulls local scale communities together, and one of the most powerful acts we can make to strengthen our own community is to spend our money ‘locally’ (including within our communities of common interest, which may be physically separate). Every time we spend a pound in a chain store or supermarket, 80p goes straight out of our community, swallowed up by the costs of transport, packaging and advertising or straight into the coffers of the faceless corporations. And when we put money into a high street bank, we often have no way of knowing what will happen to it, whether it will be invested in interests like arms trading, factory farming, genetic engineering, speculation against ‘Third World’ currencies or whatever.

But when we spend locally, or invest in each other rather than abstract concepts like ‘Stocks and Bonds’ or ‘Futures Markets’, we can have far more control over where our energy is used and what we are supporting. The same pound spent within our own community largely stays within it to be continually re-invested to produce wealth for all.

Can’t pay, won’t pay- oh really?

I’ve also noticed that we tend to undervalue and undersell ourselves in the green/alternative movement. Maybe there is some truth in the comment that we can make information available for ‘next to nothing’, but although paper & ink may be relatively cheap (however those aren’t the only costs involved in self publishing I can assure you- the only people so far getting rich from Spiralseed are the Post Office…), this doesn’t reflect the work that has gone into my books- my vegan cookbook ‘Well Fed Not An Animal Dead’ took me two years to write and draw, ‘Permaculture For Beginners’ took four. OK, so they were both labours of love and I thoroughly enjoyed producing them, but they are works of craft as far as I am concerned, and are we saying that craftspersons or people who enjoy the work they do shouldn’t be rewarded and respected? To say nothing of the ‘hidden costs’ I put into those books, ie, the amount of time/energy/cash expended attending courses, buying/reading books for research, etc…

To me the old slogan ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay!’ these days often sounds more like a cheap excuse from those who expect a free ride whilst others slog and struggle. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing. When Phil Corbett of Cool Temperate Nursery recently told me about the ‘anarchists’ who had ripped off (sorry, ‘expropriated’) his stock, then justified themselves by saying that Cool Temperate is a ‘business’, I was reminded of the ‘anarchist’ punks who were always complaining about gig door prices or some band or other having ‘sold out’. Yet those who were most likely to be found bunking into benefit gigs, blagging free fanzines or nicking records from the stall at the back always had the biggest stashes of blow and stacks of Special Brew cans. Maybe I’m generalising, but it’s a pretty poor anti-capitalist ethic that won’t spend within it’s own community but is always happy to make the multinational brewing corporations and Colombian drug barons rich…

Monocultures? No thanks!

In terms of being a tool to enable trade and social lubrication, ‘money’ is but one of many available. In other words, a money only based economy is a monoculture. And like a monocultural agricultural system, collapse is but one disaster away. Let’s remember the Irish potato famine (OK, I know there were political/social causes as well, but it will do to make my point for now). The agricultural system relied totally on one crop. When that crop failed, nobody could eat. And it’s the same with relying solely on money. One stock market crash too many and it’s the depression all over again. But a POLYCULTURAL economy, like a food growing system which has many elements such as a diversity of fruit & nut trees, grains, vegetables and so on, will be able to survive if one element fails. An economy which is based not only on cash but also LETS, barter, skills sharing, mutual aid, credit unions, co-operatives, Time dollars, etc etc will be far more resilient. Fundamentally, community/green economics is about recognising that everybody has something to contribute, and is of worth within a local scale community even though they might be financially skint…

Maybe all this is blindingly obvious to many of you, but I still find myself grappling with my attitudes towards money. Permaculture isn’t about prescriptive approaches and I don’t have all the answers, but I hope this article opens up some discussion and debate beyond the standard rhetoric…

Graham Burnett, Spring 2003. This article originally appeared in Permaculture Magazine no. 37 (Spring 2003)