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Cuba, Australian Socialists and Permaculture

by Dave Riley

Anyone who's been there will tell you that to understand low energy inputs and systems like Permaculture you have to do the DIY.

I used to practice Permaculture in the nineties at our old house and have now begun another project in a different context.I call it "Little Cuba".

I was talking to a horticulturalist last month who could see no prospect that our cities could be turned into local food production or short food/low energy journeying.And she was a leading parks and gardens manager in the Tweed River Shire -- bordering on hippiedom to the south. She could see the massive climate challenges and despite her skill and training (in Horticulture AND Permaculture) could not address the options with any confidence.

The problem with Permaculture lore is that it presumes that we can sentence almost everyone to agricultural activity in some form. That's not possible and is certainly not a preferred option.

So we need to logically proceed --and the Cuban example is very useful in setting a sort of template to consider.

Just how could this be done?

Barry Healey's recent article in GLW on Permaculture and Marxism doesn't address that point --and after re-reading Permaculture literature -- nor do the Permaculturalists themselves.

So is there a prospect that we can engineer an alliance with the Permaculturalists who see the system as a means to save the planet from its carbon addiction? Can Permaculture become a political movement?

One of the quaint ironies of Australian green politics is that the ecosocialist movement with dedicated adherents primarily off shore -- defers to local theorists as its patrons: Alan Roberts and Ted Trainer. Two individuals who aren't usually part of socialist discourse in this country.

And the Cuban preferred 'system' bases itself on the work of another two locals: Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

So is there some doctrinal adaptation we need to engineer to weld these systems to own banner?

VIDEO:Low energy lifestyle lessons from Cuba, an excellent documentary on living locally and sustainable living.

Large format view of video...

12 Com:

John Tracey | August 19, 2007

"So is there some doctrinal adaptation we need to engineer to weld these systems to own banner?"

You guys sure have funny ideas about gardening.

The essential problem with Australian permaculture is it is a movement of middle class land owners who try to manifest their private idealism within the confines of their fences.

Agriculture,whether it is the scientifically sensible notion of permaculture or not, is the essential issue. Agriculture is about land land is about capital.

Agricultural reform means land reform means collectivisation of some sort.

In Maoist peasant context socialising the farm is is the same as socialising the factory.

In South Africa or Zimbabwe or Australia it means transferring land from the capitalists to the indigenous collectives. If they are sensible they will employ permaculture principles in the collective gardens, but land management practices are irrelevant without land ownership reform.

The model in Australia that the permaculturalists are generally blind to, although Mollison has written about it with great insight and integrity, is indigenous land management practices.

I reckon the challenge is how to make our backyard gardens functioning elements of the wider bush - wild space with no fences.

e.g. A lot of vegetarian permaculturalists say they deal with native animals pinching their vegies by growing more vegies so there is enough for people as well as the critters. This is a euro-vego illusion. If our compost heap and garden begins to feed a particular species beyond its natural resource base in the bush then the ecological balance is disturbed. That species population will grow and the species that it preys on (plant or animal) will dwindle or be wiped out - all while the hippy vego has a warm inner glow that they didn't kill a critter.

It seems to me the real permaculture principle in this case is to plant surplusses for critters to eat, especially rare or endangered species, to build up their populations, but then us people have to cull them so they don't get out of hand. cull less in drought, cull more in fertile times. And, in permaculture terms, what is the best thing to do with a culled critter? - eat it of course, don't waste anything.

So in terms of Australian socialism and permaculture, the challenge is not just to collectivise land but to harmonise human land management systems with wilderness eco systems, just like humans did on this continent for thousands of years before imperialist capitalism, with its occupation force of the working class, turned up and began killing the land and the people for these euro notions of fenced private property.

That's how I see it.

see also "Terra Nullius and ecology"

Walter Lippmann | August 20, 2007

This was an informative report. If you'd like to know a lot more about Cuba, may I modestly recommend the CubaNews list, probably the largest and most comprehensive English-language news group focusing on Cuba? For the past seven years, CubaNews has brought tens of thousands (over seventy thousand so far) news items from, about or related to Cuba to the English-speaking world. It has a searchable database where you can do research without even being subscribed.

I will take your report and send it to CubaNews for its readers as well.

The advantages of subscribing is the information is delivered to you, and you can post questions, raise issues, or whatever as you wish. I'm very pro-Cuba, but CubaNews posts materials from many points of view. I also travel to Cuba regularly and provide first-person reports from there.

Please check it out. Thanks!


Dave Riley | August 22, 2007

I agree with John Tracey up to a point.

I agree that Permaculture in Australia is thwarted by its middle class land owner syndrome -- in effect, it's petti bougeois context -- but then thats' a core element underpinning the everyday activity of working farmers anyhow.

So I don't go on about socialising the land on purpose because I recognise that handicap as being very real and something that is not dealt with via a rigid doctrine of collectivisation.

But I think John mixes the two concepts a bit that I find confusing: land rights and land collectivisation.

I'm all for collectivisation AND land rights but I cannot see any imperative way to proceed with collective anything unless you have agreement and un conditional support from the many small land holding stake holders effected. And this applies as much to small working farms as much as it does to owner occupied urban real estate owners.

So it's not simply a issue of principle.

There is a route that must be followed --and while John may wax about Maoism and collectivisation, I think the Cuban example is also interesting as a route designed to assuage the peasantry.You cannot promise people land and then take it away from them by insisting on enforced collectivisation.

Imagine the consequences here in Australia if a new government decided to socialise the rural sector totally overnight. The farmers would starve the cities just as many doctors would withhold medical treatment if we quickly imposed absolute 'socialised' medicine without tactical guarantees to keep them working.

Our advantage --such as it is -- is that the agricultural sector is now so very corporate that the big agri business companies now own such a large hunk of it --so they're an easy target for take over and socialisation.[And like forestry you have to negotiate this alos with the workers involved).

So there we have a major window to negotiate a very new relationship very quickly with the environment and indigenous Australians and I think the "left" has to quickly decide on this point.-- in effect whether we advocate that a big swag of Australia cease to be part of the cattle, sheep and board acre farming.

The problem, much closer to home, is one of generating use patterns that feed our cities without the massive energy inputs that are currently being paid out.

Thats' the core conundrum and it was in this context that I was referring to Permaculture.

It seems to me that this is a core environment factor that is not being addressed but it was one that was thwart with a lot of political and cultural challenges.

I know people who by default were teaching Permaculture to Cubans and I know the resistance they had to deal with --esp with the preferences embedded in the Cuban diet: rice, beans and pork -- and a distaste for greens.

So there are issues here, I believe, that "we" need to get our head around especially, as I wanted to suggest, so we can transcend the middle class psyche that currently rules Permaculture ethos.

I have a Bill Mollison video here and another on David Holmgren which explores some of the current thinking (and marks off its limitations).

My view is that Permaculture's major limitation is its dedicated and almost rigid localism and that it IS NOT a political doctrine despite all its pretense for being a 'solution'.

The Cuban take up and use of Permaculture does however present that contradiction sharply..and , if you like, I was keen to consider it and make some remarks.

John Tracey | August 22, 2007

a couple of responses to Dave.

I agree that land rights and collectivisation are different. The point I was trying to make, which we seem to agree on is that Australian Permaculture is apolitical and that is what makes it irrelevant to real reform on either land management or real solutions to feeding all of us.
It is just a nice private idea at present.

Collectivisation need not be state imposed. e.g. neighbors can pull down their fences without touching land title. Such would be more productive as well as efficient than private gardens, also allowing for specialisation of labour.

Aboriginal land management is based on a very strict notion of private property - traditional ownership. It is collective in as much as the corporate entity (family) owns the real estate. However land management and resource use is communal. Non-traditional owners or non-custodians of a particular place still have rights (food) and responsibilities on other peoples property within clearly defined laws of sharing.

The question is how do collectivists from colonial society connect to indigenous systems.

John Tracey | August 22, 2007

p.s. I have argued that a problem for Oz socialists is that indigenous traditional ownership and land rights is essentially capitalism - private ownership of the means of production. Traditional trade and currency systems are also free market systems.

Dave Riley | August 22, 2007

Traditional Indigenous ownership isn't capitalist John by any stretch of the imagination and I cannot accept that argument at all.

You miss a point I was making about the peasantry and land ownership and that was that any process of collective ownership was a political process.

How Indigenous Australian use their land 'rights' is up to Indigenous Australians. Thats' the point of the exercise. It doesn't matter one iota whether it is by your definition "free marketed" or capitalist at the moment or in the future or the past.

I also don't think that "traditional ownership" equates with private property at all. It is not the same in that it is a very different partnership with Nature that is eons separate from the capitalist mode of ownership or the feudal form or the slave owning form or what ever -- primarily because it is a very different relationship between labour and Nature. Where's the class in control who do the 'owning'? If familial groupings oversee certain segments of the terrain I still cannot equate that with "ownership' in the sense you seem to be arguing for.

The problem with Permaculture is that it pretends that these other relationships with Nature -- all the forces that mediate our existence between Nature and what we do to eat today under capitalism-- don't warp the ability to do Permaculture to develop or flourish on any significant scale.

That's why the Cuban experience is so interesting because it invests other core dynamics into the mix: and harvests the state to that end.

Where Permaculture may be useful is that it offers us a way to format and plan ecologically whilst being considerate of the structural, economic and cultural challenges we'd need to negotiate. It's a schema to utilize as a means to format a perspective which is both ecological, economic and political.

It can never be sufficient to pull down neighborhood fences by dint of some spontaneous process because even if you converted x percent of the Australian urban landscape or economy like that -- even suburb by suburb -- the challenge that confronts us is of such a scale that that would not be enough.

There is such a thing as socialised planning that has to transcend bio regions and neighborhoods.

If the family home is going to be the security investment for working families you are confronted with the same challenges as you would convincing the peasant to part with or open up their land for collective use.

If you can guarantee people a home, income security, and the rest they will be open to processes that undermine and in time replace private ownership and individual accumulation.

Where people move in a collective direction --as is happening is so many areas of Venezuela at the moment --with the growth of cooperatives, missions and neighborhood councils -- then you support that and facilitate it but you cannot so easily impose these things.

The proof of the pudding has to be in the eating.

So you'd have to consider wiping out home mortgage debt some how by nationalising the finance industry and rolling back home lending interest rates -- to zero probably.

Then when people are free of this massive burden you can more actively convince them to negotiate a broader and more open ecology or whatever.

Its no good saying either --as the permaculturalist seem to infer -- that Ok you, you and you --stop that job you're doing making widgets or whatever -- it's back to the farm.And all you women: off to the kitchen and bake us up some sourdough bread.

Unless any green movement can deal with that it will not be able to address all the issues that urgently need to be confronted.

A massive shift is no doubt required in double quick time and to do that you'll need, in effect, a war economy partnered with localised initiatives.

colin | August 23, 2007

It seems that you miss the point of permaculture: while some who practice it may be individual landholders, others are collective landholders. Its a mass movement with a different paradigm to doctrinaire socialism; to 'weld' it to a doctrinaire agenda wouldn't work, it would be a hijacking of the permaculture paradigm, and as such would ultimately fail.

For such a thing to work would need a synthesis, an alteration of what both are. Who knows, such a synthesis of socialism and permaculture may be what the future needs. But before it happens the socialism will need great humility and loose it egocentric, doctrinaire, superior attitude and practice. Is that possible?

Dave Riley | August 24, 2007

So, Colin, what are they practicising in Cuba?

The paradigm seems to 'fit' there, doesn't it?

This discourse is about that merging of the two concepts and assessing their relevance to each other.

Isn't that humble enough for you? esp given the current climate context....

And again: if the Cubans have highjacked Permaculture in what sense is it pre-ordained that their use of it is sentenced to fail? Does that then mean that the Cubans have to give up on socialism before their use of Permaculture can work? This is most obscure argumentation on your part because I think you aren't addressing the core issues in play.

Here we have an example of Permaculture being employed a on a massive scale --much more extensively than any where else on earth and underpinning the whole food economy -- and you are refusing to address that reality.

Stimmer | August 24, 2007

I think people are beginning to talk at crossed purposes here. In fact, that's a fairly common problem in the Permie community, as I'm sure we can all see (and the permaculture list-serves further confirm). That is, people come to Permaculture with their own expectations and politics, and translate it in through those filters into practical, often very effective, work.

This is both the strength and weakness of Permaculture. It is not a doctrine (and anyone who has had to deal with Bill Mollison's temper when he encounters "disciples" will know that), and therefore can't necessarily be "hijacked". Socialism is not a doctine either. Both are scientific systems of reorganising the world to the benefit of all that live on it constructed on sound, material, bases.

The weakness of Permaculture is that it has political and scientific limits. Scientific, because it is easily infected with “deep ecology” and enviro-spiritualism (which it is very vulnerable to, because it draws a great deal of inspiration from the incredible logic of the eco-system). And, as Dave points out, it has political limits: without taking a political stance, it can only make piecemeal or partial changes to the system of destruction and greed we live in. It remains important, also, to differentiate between the people who engage in Permaculture, and the politics they espouse.

The latter of the limits above has become apparent to a lot of “Permies”, and Bill and others were quite recently discussing a “Permaculture People’s Party”. There are limits to the Greens, the major parties aren’t ‘green’ at all, and the system doesn’t just change when you plant a mandala garden (watch the video – small kid, green shirt). But yet another small interest-group party isn’t enough, and, as I said above, and should be obvious, permies come from a range of political backgrounds. The idea appears to have done its day, by the way, and I wish it all the rest in peace it deserves.

The challenge is not to set up another “greenie” party, this one with the quite admirable content of Permaculture, but to set up a new party (if no adequate existing one can be found) that has the broader perspective and politics that can make the guiding and founding principles of Permaculture realisable on a LARGE-scale (while still retaining the localised ecological empathy necessary to make it work).

The politics of that party needs to be socialism – the only really ecologically sustainable system, combining grass-roots community control and action with an understanding of the need to democratically take control of the forces of the state and big business – the biggest polluters and exploiters of the world – and turn them to the needs of the people and planet.

The proof that this is correst lies once again in the example of Cuba, and the massive turnaround they have achieved. It’s rarely mentioned (for example in the doco “The power of community – how Cuba survived peak oil”) exactly HOW and WHY the Cuban state itself has been able to take the ecological road. The answer should be obvious. And if people haven’t already, they should read the Socialist Alliance’s “Climate Change Charter” as an example of what the first steps need to be.

Dave Riley | August 25, 2007

I recommend the video that is included with the original post. It's well worth working through as it is a detailed exploration of the Cuban template and takes this discussion away from abstractions into the real world of food and sustainability.

John Tracey | August 25, 2007

Dave, you said....

"Traditional Indigenous ownership isn't capitalist John by any stretch of the imagination and I cannot accept that argument at all."

In the old days Australia had a vibrant economy including international trade - all without any state apparatus. A free marketeer's dream!

In indigenous and European terms, land is capital. In Indigenous terms it is the totality of the means of production. The wealth that comes from traditional ownership of the means of production is not earned, it is inherited - This was the Late Eddie Mabo's key point to the high court.

So why is stateless free trade, inherited wealth and private ownership of the means of production not capitalist?

The best you could say is the cultural imperitive to share, but this customary law obligation is only applicable to relations. This seems to be how the ruling class also works, e.g. Packers, Murdochs, HolmesACourts (or however its spelt), the British Royal family etc.

Dave, you are operating within a colonial paradigm by imposing your own European notions onto Aboriginal reality - claiming some affinity with Aboriginal culture but redefining it in your own image. This is the nature of Australian racism - right or left.

Dave Riley | August 26, 2007

No John. I'm using language to describe things --as you did. You said "capitalist" and that is a word with a very clear meaning in regarded to the means of production.

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