Chapter 14: Strategies for an Alternative Nation, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual — Notes

“No-one would deny that people are the most difficult factor in any design or assembly. It is not that people lack the will to cooperate; its is more often that they have not adapted those sensible legal and administrative, or social mechanisms which allow them to cooperate.” (p. 532)

Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual — or simply “the manual” — is the classic text and reference for permaculture, written by permaculture’s co-founder Bill Mollison. Permaculture is an ethical design science based on the observation of natural and sustainable ecosystems (see also, this introduction to permaculture). Humans are part of these ecosystems. Thus, most, if not all, of the patterns and principles articulated in permaculture can be applied to human social systems. Chapter 14 of the manual is where Bill Mollison focuses specifically on people.

14.1 – Introduction (p. 506)

“We know how to solve every food, clean energy, and sensible shelter problem in every climate…The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy, and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them.” (p. 506)

Permaculture designs, “like systems in nature, are wildly complex. Many other agricultural [and social*] techniques destroy this complexity in order to create something simple to control.” – Geoff Lawton PDC 2.0, Brief Overview from video 2.15, *my addition.

14.2 – Ethical basis of an alternative nation (p. 507)

  • Duties and responsibilities of people to nature equal to those of people to people
  • Right livelihood includes social and environmental responsibility
  • It’s never enough to mean well
  • Very best security is to teach others

14.3 – A new United Nations (p. 508)

14.4 – Alternatives to political systems (p. 508)

  • replace power-centered with life- (this from p. 509) and information-centered
  • possible to agree with diverse people on basics of life-centered ethics and “commonsense procedures” (p. 508). Cooperate on mutual concerns and view differences as “a chance of history and evolution” rather than “personal perversity.” (p. 509)
  • Structure for gathering common policy (p. 510):
    • Define the problem
    • State intent
    • Collect strategies proven to work
    • Frame policies based on those strategies

14.5 – Bioregional Organisation (p. 510)

  • Act and think globally and locally
  • “The acid test of a bioregion is that it is recognized as such by its inhabitants” (p. 510)
  • Ideally limited to 7,000-40,000 people
  • Categories of concern for a bioregional office, include food, shelter, livelihood, etc. (p. 511-514)
  • “…the secret of success: assembling sufficient commonsense people in one area.” (p. 514) dgm: What is commonsense?

14.6 – Extended families (p. 514)

“With common interest and ethical base, cooperative interdependence supplants competition.” (p. 514)

Ideas about what can be accomplished:

  • Common funds and co-investment (e.g., College fund)
  • Childcare
  • Escape from feeling trapped in nuclear family

14.7 – Trusts and legal strategies (p. 515)

  • Trusts give away their profits annually to named beneficiaries. If beneficiary is an individual, that gift is taxed as income; if to a church or charitable trust, the gift is not taxable.
  • Directors of trust: 3-4 is enough
  • Trust A for the public good: holds all land and large equipment not at risk and clear of debt. Trust B is a non-profit trading trust which trades, takes risks, accepts labor, can pay employees, rent or lease property from Trust A. Trust A is the beneficiary of Trust B. (p. 517-8). Get a good lawyer and an accountant.
  • Property can be purchased by many small investors who should be given every opportunity for on-site work, consultancy, etc.

14.9 – Village development (p. 519)

“We need well-designed villages today more than any other enterprise…” (p. 519)

  • Villagers should share a group ethic
  • Some sensible aims of a village: Reduce need to earn, Earn within the village, Produce a surplus, Provide many of the non-material needs of people, Access to tools
  • 30% of titles available should cover all land and development costs
  • “…essential is that any village should be able to catch, store, reticulate, and clean up its own water supply.” (p. 521-2)
  • Energy production is good.
  • Size of villages: 100 income-producing people means a significant financial institution can be village based; 500 people – everyone CAN know each other; 2,000 – theft and competitiveness more common
  • Mondragon Cooperatives of Spain – 300-500 people
  • Knowledge of each other’s names is a primary factor (p. 523)
  • When possible, life, work, and recreation should be combined in one dwelling
  • Family dwellings: .5 – 5 acre lots
  • Village energy. See Figure 14.7 (p. 525) for list of options by efficiency
  • Costs are high in food, energy, and transport. Inspires how residents can earn their living.
  • “Much depends on a village development credit union which is founded by the village under Trust B to serve the village needs.” (p 527-8). It can fund energy systems, etc.
  • Food: 1 farmer/20 adult eaters
  • Vehicles: better supplied by a network of villages
  • Multiple streams of income. Everyone should have multiple part-time jobs. (p. 529)
  • “Avoid the fate of affluence…The only real security in life is a secure society of interdependent people, thus the only valid ‘defense’ is aid to others” (p. 530)

14.10 – Effective working groups and right livelihood (p. 530)

dgm: I found this section particularly helpful for the level of community I’m typically involved in which includes a co-housing community and a business partnership.

  • Abolish decision meetings (p. 530)
  • Abolish consensus which leads to tyranny of the minority
  • There are two types of work:
    1. Pleasing work (creative, productive, or constructive). For this work, we allot the task to volunteer(s), agreeing on a timetable and stages of completion.
    2. Maintenance. We roster people to do the work.
  • Use the smallest group suitable for a task. Those responsible for the management of tasks should involve 1-3 people who manage independently. This is the best size unit for decision-making. Completion dates are set; report and plan is made public.
  • After assigning or choosing functions, no meetings are needed.
  • Size and function groups (p. 531)
    • 1-3 people: Executive decision, least meeting time, greater pressure to act, fast changes possible, fast replacement of key people.
    • 4-6 people: Good volunteer or cooperative group work
    • 7-20 people: Function well only in social conditions.
    • The list continues and is very interesting
  • Large group delegates to smaller group who is trusted to do the job and replaced only “if they persistently fail to do so.” (p. 531).
  • Dissenters: Form your own group doing parallel work.
  • If all the work and decisions are taken on by smaller groups, all larger group meetings can be “social and convivial, and for information exchange” (p. 531) so the meetings are pleasant and people look forward to them.
  • Formation of a group should involve shared values. Voluntary simplicity is an important value as wealth, like any surplus not used by the system, is pollution.
  • Primary errors (partial list) in setting up community systems (p. 532):
    • Group consensus (tyranny of dissenter)
    • Group leadership by one or a few (tyranny of the leader)
    • Rules about lifestyle (tryanny of proscription)
    • Neglect of income-producing activities
  • Law of Return: “Everything must pay” — “Proposers pay capital and users pay costs” (p. 532)
  • In a world where so much work is needed, the idea of unemployment is obscene.
  • Balanced life = physical exertion, intellectual pursuits, and emotional-sensual

14.11 – Money and finance (p. 533)

In small and unified groups (tribes), social accounting replaces fiscal accounting.

Money must be tied or fixed to a “useful real asset” (p. 533)

“All money arises from the wealth of the natural world (plants, clean water, clear air, stored energy…the accumulation of unused wealth…is a pollution.” (p. 533)

“Insecure people…tend to spend money on monuments and protection rather than in assisting nature to produce wealth” (p. 533). dgm: Bill seems to be using the word “insecure” in the psychological sense. Anyone who is in danger — physically insecure — will be interested in protection.

Money::Water. “Money is to the social fabric as water is to land-scape.” (p. 534)

Not the amount that is important

It’s the # of uses or duties money goes to and the # of cycles

Keep money in the community as long as possible with minimal leakage and recycling as the rule.

Money has no intrinsic value but can be used to create assets of different categories: Degenerative, Generative (tools of society that can wear out but can be used to repair each other), Procreative, Informational, conservative (e.g., dams, insulation, money recycling systems). The last 3 conserve and create wealth.

When we talk about money, “…we’re actually talking about a philosophy of true democracy, peace and ‘lifetime'” (p. 535).

“Time and money are often interchangeable. To control the cash flow of our society is to control our lives” (p. 535).

The informal economy

  • Barter
  • 35-person workgroups
  • Coordination or regulation of labor may be needed with more than 6-8 people
  • Case study – Bendigo Home Builder’s Club: Members of a work club can either be recipients or donors of labor, units of exchange are hours of labor, all labor considered equal. Labor organizer tracks balance of payments and dispatches laborers to a recipient who must have at least 60 hours in credit.
  • A community barter club. Paid in credits. Donor and recipient agree what they consider the job is worth.
  • Local Employment Trading (LET) System. Unlike conventional money which enters and exits a community and accumulates in cities, banks, and multinational coffers, community money (or credit) “circulates indefinitely in the community, providing a constantly available resource” (p. 535). Since only members can trade with each other, the accounts are always balanced.
  • Other informal: volunteering, gifts, community project

The formal economy (p. 536)

  • Formal means under a legal umbrella and regulated by accounting.
  • Cooperatives. Legal entity with limited liability. Principles: Open membership, democratic, fair but limited interest, surplus belongs to members, education, cooperation with other coops. dgm: I’m interesting in the connection between all-member influence and small action groups. Bill appears to solve this issue with everyone being an owner and voting for two sets of representatives: Business Directors and Union Reps.
    • 200-300 member coop model: Mondragon worker coop in Spain. Annual meeting of all members where a particular enterprise elects directors (managers) to run the business and a social council (union) to negotiate with directors on work conditions, pay, education, etc. (p. 536).
    • Small community coop (p. 537). Unlike privately owned businesses, the whole workforce are shareholders, and all vote for people to fill these positions.
    • “Nobody ‘represents’ a bioregion or cooperative in the ungovernable sense that elected politicians “represent” their electorate (i.e., every ‘representation’ or policy decision of a cooperative comes from the ground up…)” (p. 537).
    • Community savings and loans.
    • Credit unions. Form for 30+ people. Idea: Handle health and insurance. “Money borrowed in order to save money [e.g., pv panels] is soon repaid, and so is safe to lend.” (p. 537)
    • Revolving loan fund. Research and publicize “leaks” of money from the area so underemployed people can start services that stop those leaks. Loans at low local interest. S.H.A.R.E. & C.E.L.T. (p 538).
    • Local currency. Preconditions for use (p. 541). To prevent hoarding, new issue every 4-5 years. Currency can be collapsed when most region needs met (many small towns funded their public works this way in the 1930s).
    • Small business services center. Itself a small business.
    • Leasing systems for seldom-used items of capital equipment with charges sufficient to cover running costs, repairs, and replacements.

14.12 – Land Access (p. 545)

  • Trusteeship of land. Given our short lives, “…the very concept of land ownership is ludicrous” (p. 545). Ownership vs. right to use. If people really want land, fastest approach is to set up a “ways and means” research group or open an advisory center on such methods (p. 547). Again, no need to own, just get right to use. People have many incentives to give land away (e.g., they want a village or people out there with them)
  • Land access office.
    • Land lease system within urban areas = air bnb of land use: people not using their lawns lease to people who want to garden or farm those lawns. (p. 547).
    • Garden or farm club: farm purchased by the club, private plots with overnight accommodation (e.g., RVs) for weekends.
    • City farms.
    • Towns and cities as farms with non-profits collecting unwanted food (gleaning) – done well in Japan (p. 548).
    • Commonwork systems: Once design work complete, local people run enterprises as self-employed. Needs to be near town or public transport. Members free to leave, sell to new lessees. In the Mondragon system, income differentials are limited in the ratio 1:4 or 5, e.g., a sweeper cannot receive less than 25% of the income of a Dr. (p. 550).
    • For a nation-state, taxes were perhaps intended for social needs but they’ve always been used to raise armies and enrich a minority (p. 550). If taxes were not used in this way, the need to work would be negligible. Employment is a modern idea: “all ancient societies of people arranged life without any of these impediments, but only by seeing life as livings, and living things as basic to life” (p. 550).

14.13 – An ethical investment movement (p. 551)

Movement toward avoiding unethical investments and toward supporting ethical investments (based on earth-care, people-care, sharing surplus). Lists of recommended investments.

“Wherever a body of laws has been formed on the basis of the responsibility of people to their environment, a dynamic, long-maintained, and relatively harmless occupancy of the earth has resulted…But wherever a body of laws has been formed based on our ‘rights’ to property, to protect material resources and accumulations, and to permit destruction of the public resource, we will not only destroy whole environments and species, but in the end ourselves” (p. 552).

Active and passive investment development (p. 553). Discourage passive investment. No inducement greater than self-interest. Development of a permaculture village: shares fund it. “Why should we fund our own destruction when the alternative is wide open for profitable, ethical development?” (p. 553).

Proportional investment. 10% to risk ventures. 10-20% to local S.H.A.R.E. program or credit union as community development funds. 10-20% to any existing clean public power utility. 20-40% to social investment fund. 10% to public interest investment (school, hospital, research center)

Sources for investment. Those with inherited surplus, churches and organizations with ethic of peace and goodwill, organizations like Sierra Club. Everyone who uses a bank is an investor by default.

Using current capitalistic tools for good (p. 554). Buy up discounted “third world” debt and ask for repayment in the form of the development of forests, etc. Public for-profit trusts where share values are reassessed every year and value increased based on the current state of forest, presence of lakes, etc. Hostile takeover used to shift assets to sustainable use and restoration (e.g., logging company degraded land can be managed by people who know how).

“I believe that only group or community (bioregional) survival is meaningful and possible; individual survival is meaningless, as is survival in fortresses.” (p. 557)

“The profound change we must all make is internal; everybody needs to realise that there is no group coming to their rescue, that it is only what each of us does that counts; thus, those who cooperate with others, and take on a task relevant to all people, will be valued above those who seek personal survival.” (p. 557)

14.15 – Aid and assistance in areas of need (p. 557)

Aldo Leopold saw 2 trends: (1) Disappearance of wilderness; (2) world-wide hybridisation of cultures. So, we should not plunder wilderness, and preserve remaining genetic resources

“Aid is a necessary but delicate affair” (p. 557). “The core of successful aid lies in modest trials, careful extension, and provision for widespread education” (p. 557).

“As political rule can change so rapidly…planning for the very long-term is possible only as a resident regional involvement” (p. 557-8).

Aid as joint enterprises (p. 558) is a legal agreement between two groups, one in western world and one in “third world” with goal of satisfying needs of both groups: “become friends for mutual enrichment.”

A final limit to development. At some point, we have to stop producing goods endlessly. “There are certain rules for earth care which lie beyond the economic realm” (p. 559).

14.16 – References & resources (p. 558)


For a skeptical and intelligent conversation about Chapter 14, see this discussion at permies.com, featuring Erica Wisner (of Rocket Stove fame), Ann Torrence, and Janet Dowell.

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