As a developed set of social practices, techniques and ethical norms, permaculture has a lot to say to the world of the commons. This is immediately clear from reading the twelve design principles of permaculture that David Holmgren enumerated in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Practices Beyond Sustainability. It mentions such principles as “catch and store energy,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,” “produce no waste,” and “design from patterns to details.”
My friendship and work with ecological design expert Dave Jacke have only intensified my conviction that permaculturists and commoners need to connect more and learn from each other. The value of such dialogues was brought home to me by a public talk and an all-day workshop that I co-organized with Dave. The events, which in combination we called “Reinventing the Commons,” were an opportunity for 35 participants to learn about ecosystem dynamics and the commons, and for Dave and me to learn from each other in public. How might we build better commons by mimicking the principles and patterns of natural ecosystems?
Dave’s talk on the evening of January 20 was a great introduction to this topic. He started by showing a chart plotting the “industrial ascent” of human civilization as fueled by cheap fossil fuels, growing populations and profligate pollution and waste. (See the yellow line in the chart; based on a diagram originally by David Holmgren (http://futurescenarios.org.)
Dave’s quick historical overview started with tribal commons in the prehistoric era, a time when people self-organized to obtain enough food and shelter to survive. Societies began to take the shape of feudal commons in Roman and Medieval times, at least in England and Europe. Lords owned the land and claimed privileged access to certain resources of the landscape while allowing commoners to manage other resources themselves.
When the feudal system began to collaborate with the budding market system in the 17th century, we saw the rise of a new sort of state and market system with a very different logic and ethic. Soon a series of enclosures privatized and marketized wealth previously managed collectively. Enclosures were a violent dispossession of commoners, who were left as landless peasants with little choice but to become wage-slaves and paupers in the early industrial cities.
The commons, once a dominant form of social organization, was supplanted by the state and then the market. In no time the market and state were colluding to build a new vision of “progress” based on an extractive growth economy. The market/state system has in fact built the modern, technological society that we inhabit today.
But can this system continue? Can the planetary ecosystem – and climate – survive capitalism? One of the most revealing slides that Dave showed was this one showing the role of different governance systems over history – commons, state and markets.