People in the permaculture movement disagree about the politics of the pandemic. But until the last few months, this disagreement wasn’t a huge drama. No one was arguing that we should take one side or another to show our commitment to permaculture.
This changed when David Holmgren, one of the founders of the movement, wrote a blogpost on his permaculture site in late 2021. Boiled down, it attacked the lockdowns, promoted the idea that the vaccines on offer aren’t safe, suggested there were various cheap cures for COVID-19, and opposed vaccine mandates as authoritarian overreach. Binding all this together were some overarching themes: the virus was not as serious as it had been painted; it mainly affected the old, the infirm and the obese; and the way forward was for the human species to develop natural immunity, rather than forcing people to undergo mass vaccination. Resistance to such state tyranny would usher in a generalised refusal to participate in the economy, and people would vote with their feet to live an alternative rural lifestyle, thereby kick-starting system change. A high-tech response like the new vaccines would be impossible in a low-energy future, so we might as well start looking for low-tech solutions now.
It would take weeks of research to consider all of Holmgren’s points, but some are clearly wrong. For example, he argues that treatment options are being successfully tried in countries such as Mexico and India, which probably refers to an Egyptian study of Ivermectin published in a peer-reviewed journal. Ivermectin treatment took off in hospitals in India and Latin America after publication of this study, but it turned out to be fraudulent: they had faked the data. Every day, mainstream news sources painstakingly unpick the latest anti-vax medical theory. Try a subscription to The Age, The Guardian or The New York Times and follow the links to scientific journal articles. More interesting, though, were Holmgren’s vision of social change, his response to the role of the state and his speculations on science in a post-capitalist permaculture utopia.
There was a very divided response to Holmgren’s post among members of the permaculture community. Russ Grayson, Rowe Morrow, Rick Coleman, Penelope Swales, Linda Woodrow, Keri Hopeward, Robyn Francis, Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar—close to a roll call of influential permaculture activists in Australia—critiqued or disagreed with Holmgren’s post. Some, like Morrow, voiced a common view in the movement: that the inequity of distribution of vaccines globally is structural racism and expresses the economic interests of rich-country governments and global pharmaceutical companies. But there were also a small number of influential permaculture activists who came out to support Holmgren’s position.
Then, in November, David Holmgren and others attended two anti-government rallies opposing mandates and the impending Pandemic Bill, carrying a highly visible permaculture banner.
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What are the implications for permaculture?
Permaculture, like most social movements, is organised independently through a variety of groups and activists, connected through their common commitment to a set of key ideas, networking to produce various joint actions. There is no top-down centralised authority structure. In that understanding, such a range of opinion is not really a problem for the movement. Indeed Holmgren made it clear that he was not aiming to set out a definitive movement position, and hoped that the different factions would continue to work together on common projects.
But a different way to look at permaculture as a social movement is to focus on the way the movement is organised through common commitment to the ideas set out in three canonical texts, the first by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison together, the next by Bill alone and the third by David. These give a complexity and depth to permaculture. In my conversations with permaculture activists at the grassroots, permaculture people define their commitment through these texts and cite them in numerous ways when explaining their practice. To that extent permaculture is informed by a ‘charismatic foundationalism’. This new situation, then, confronts people in the movement with an awkward conundrum: how to continue to define yourself in terms of permaculture when you regard the views of one of the movement’s founders as ill-founded, unscientific, even unethical. Not only do you disagree with the stated position, but permaculture is now associated in the public mind with the anti-vax movement and demonstrations organised by the far Right.
An interesting response is that of Heather Jo Flores, a prominent US permaculture activist. She argues in a piece for Medium that David’s post defines him as racist and ableist. She claims his work was never mentioned when she undertook her permaculture training. She refuses to consider him as a founder of the movement. My own view is that there is always a tension between charismatic foundationalism and the networked, multi-centred flat organisational structure of any movement. In permaculture, this was first manifested when Bill Mollison decided that a whole cohort of established permaculture teachers had strayed from the ideas presented in his Designers’ Manual. They had embraced unscientific viewpoints he referred to as ‘woo woos’, such as ley lines, dowsing and ecofeminist spirituality. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to exclude these teachers from awarding permaculture design certificates to their students.
As I see it, permaculture needs to move away from charismatic foundationalism and define itself in terms of a set of shared ideas. In this interpretation, the three canonical texts are certainly the inspiration of the movement. Members of the movement interpret these texts differently, however, and you don’t have to accept every word in them as defining permaculture. Likewise, it is not necessary to agree with every opinion of a permaculture founder. Their interpretation of what it means to be permaculture is not authoritative within the movement.
All the same, there are two threats to the movement in this present situation. One is that a lot of people may drop their permaculture identity, becoming ‘degrowth’ or ‘agroecology’. This is already a tendency in the movement and the current conflict will only exacerbate this. The second is that we will find it much harder to recruit new people to permaculture.
A very large majority of people who now identify with permaculture come out of a background in some part of the political Left. They like permaculture for its grass-roots strategy for system change. This pathway has been compromised: now there are huge numbers of posts from young people condemning permaculture for its links to far-right rallies. Supporters of Holmgren’s position can wax lyrical on the need for permaculture to be taken up across the political divide, but in my view that’s unlikely. Apart from anything else, 93 per cent of Australians over sixteen have had at least one COVID jab. These ordinary Australians are unlikely to join a movement that is now associated with anti-vaxxers.
The far Right and permaculture
Permaculture people involved in these rallies see their participation through the lens of their own good intentions. As Holmgren’s posts and videos from the Artist as Family website indicate, they see these ‘freedom rallies’ as expressing a grassroots resistance to authoritarian government, drawing participants from across the political spectrum. They see authoritarian overreach during the pandemic as the system—the ‘deep state’—learning how to set up a centralised command economy. In their view, resistance to protect our democratic freedoms is vital. From this point of view, the permaculture movement has an opportunity to tap into this spirit of resistance to promote permaculture solutions.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the far Right has played a major part in organising these rallies, not just in Australia but globally. So, rather than looking at these issues from the perspective of the permaculture participants, let’s consider how these events are likely seen by that grouping, taking a look at their key objectives.
The far Right dreams of a white ethno-state: Jews are hated by almost all versions of the far Right; in the United States, Black Americans are hated; in Australia, Muslims are the enemy. The presence of Aboriginal flags at Australian pandemic rallies may express Indigenous identity for some participants. But it is also a convenient prop masking the racism that organisers want to background for current purposes. The conspiracy theory that Indigenous people in the Northern Territory are being forced at gunpoint to be vaccinated has gone global and is being spread by the far Right. It also sees feminists, gays, lesbians and trans people as anathema—as undermining the proper role of men, making men victims. The ideal family is the heterosexual couple with the man ‘protecting’ his woman. They also hate ‘communists’, ‘cultural Marxists’ and ‘anarchists’. The far Right is convinced that even the US Democrats are communists. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to work out that a lot of permaculture people fit into one category or another of the groups the far Right love to hate.
The far Right does not have an ethical problem with spruiking the elimination of these groups. Those who have engineered mass attacks on Muslims are heroes, as are those who have murdered social-democrat politicians, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and medical workers giving vaccinations. The nooses appearing at pandemic rallies are meant in full earnest. It is no accident that people at far-right militia training camps pose for photos while giving Nazi salutes. The far Right have stepped up their anti-authoritarian rhetoric and downplayed their racism in response to the pandemic. We should be very sceptical when they appear as the champions of freedom.
It is beyond obvious that the views of the far Right are at odds with a permaculture ethic. Members of the far Right could not ‘become’ permaculture without giving up their far-right identity and viewpoints. They could perhaps take up aspects of permaculture as sustainable agriculture, but working against this is their concern about issues they see as a lot more pressing: elite conspiracy, the replacement of white people, men as victims. In any case, the far Right opposes climate-change policies as excessive state interference in our freedom. Holmgren is also concerned about this and sees the pandemic response as a dry run for a command-economy response to climate change.
The far Right knows that most people regard their views as abhorrent or nutty. ‘Breadcrumbing’ is the term for the tactic they use to get round this distaste, performed online or through public political actions. After the folk tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the stratagem seeks to draw new followers by getting them to follow a trail, crumb by crumb, like Hansel and Gretel through the forest. In online crumbing the first post you read on social media may seem innocent enough. For example, you might read about how vaccine mandates are chucking a nurse out of her job. Clicking on a link, you discover another site that says we no longer have democracy and that votes are rigged. Following another, you find claims that this is the work of an evil conspiracy. The next tells you Jewish billionaires are working hand in glove with Muslims to destroy ‘our’ civilisation.
Breadcrumbing is also the far Right’s strategy at rallies. Come along to a diverse rally of ‘ordinary’ folk, participate in a festive rejection of vaccine mandates, demonstrate against restrictions on our freedom. But far-right groups will also be handing out pamphlets for far-right parties. Rhetoric and stage props will threaten to kill mainstream politicians. The rally will wend its way to the Shrine of Remembrance, where we can remember our brave ancestors fighting to defend our freedom. Some participants may take this with a grain of salt, but organisers hope that some will take the far-right path, or at least conclude that the far Right are not as bad as they are painted.
Crumbing is also why the far Right has been so vocal on this issue. I don’t think they are especially bothered by vaccines or mandates. But it makes sense for them to tap into the anger created by this issue. They use these elements to recruit people who are angry for a host of reasons. The insecurity of the job market, ridiculous housing prices: many young men especially experience these economic difficulties as their failure to achieve the status of breadwinner, a status their fathers could take for granted. The far Right offers them another path to manhood: join a band of warriors defending the community! The pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to feed this myth. Be courageous: star in your own action movie. Crumbing assembles support through focusing on whatever issue is likely to galvanise certain cohorts.
Far-right thinkers believe that representative democracy’s link to capitalism cannot last. Parts of the environmental movement share some of this view. In permaculture itself, the need for energy descent is a key belief: the capitalist economy depends on growth and cannot survive a linked-up set of environmental catastrophes that together make a growth economy impossible. Ergo, we are headed for collapse. How much the far Right shares this environmentalist analysis isn’t clear, but it’s not very likely.
What they do believe is that, as collapse is imminent, they should accelerate it. ‘Accelerationism’ is a set of tactics that aims to bring on this crisis of current civilisation—to make it impossible to maintain order within the framework of representative democracy. Mass rallies and violent attacks give the impression that things are getting out of hand. The invasion of the US Capitol after Trump’s defeat was a triumph of accelerationist tactics, a theatrical performance of democratic apocalypse, served on a bed of conspiracy about a failed election. In the far-right response to Black Lives Matter rallies, scenes of far-right activists carrying assault rifles were photo opportunities for social-media content. The imagery of citizens taking matters into their own hands has been an inspiration to the Australian far Right, even if their theatrics are pared down by comparison.
The scenario intended by far-right thinkers is that through these accelerationist tactics ordinary people will come to realise that normality can only be guaranteed by strong forces that will crack down hard on the groups and tendencies it hates. Participants with different viewpoints, including those from the permaculture movement, shouldn’t be deceived: in large rallies attended by diverse groupings, the far Right takes the lead, with nationalist flags and other symbols of far-right allegiance. In all the images we see, the implication is that the ordinary folk following behind are equally disenchanted with the political process and are supporters of a far-right agenda.
If permaculture people attend these rallies, displaying a permaculture banner, this serves several functions. It suggests that the far Right has the support of diverse sections of the population. In the far Right’s warrior narrative, permaculture becomes part of ‘the community’ that the far Right has a mission to protect. Because permaculture is perceived as benign, generally harmless and peace-loving, its presence at freedom rallies speaks against the impression that the far Right is violent and dangerous. By attracting people to these rallies through the message of earnest goodwill that permaculture implies, the crowd swells. And all of this means enhanced opportunities for breadcrumbing participants and those watching the spectacle on media. Finally, by participating in demonstrations aimed at destabilising the political system through symbols and actions that self-consciously promote chaos, permaculture assists the far Right in its accelerationism.
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I am far from sure about what to conclude from all this. For those like me who are reasonably optimistic about the vaccines and not too concerned by lockdowns, we don’t have to take Holmgren’s view as authoritative in the movement. We can go on identifying as permaculture if we want to. But what if permaculture has been damaged beyond repair? I can understand why some might want to abandon ship and try some other allegiance. Perhaps I am exaggerating the dangers. Perhaps, even, it does no good to discuss this fracture. The far Right thrives on dividing the Left and taking up our time with side issues. A lot of people in permaculture are just keeping quiet. Maybe that makes sense.
For those who are anti-vax there is another set of choices and possibilities. They believe that the possible dangers to permaculture are a small price to pay to defend freedom against an encroaching command economy. Holmgren asks rhetorically whether he is concerned that his participation in these rallies may damage permaculture. ‘You’ve got to be kidding’, he replies. Permaculture participation is an opportunity. These are discontented people looking for the solutions permaculture can provide. Members of the far Right may be attracted to permaculture and abandon their racist and patriarchal identities.
This pandemic conundrum provides an example of how permaculture works as a social movement. Groups and individuals who participate in social movements don’t take orders from a guru or central committee. There’s no way to declare that any one viewpoint expresses the will of the movement overall. And this can lead to fragmentation if the various parts start to disagree strongly. Permaculture is a microcosm of the differences across the Left at large; for one, its members have quite diverse views on the kind of social order that should follow capitalist industrialism.
At the least, this pandemic fracture reminds us of key questions about our longer term hopes and goals, and the tactics by which we might achieve them. Do we support representative democracy? Will system change dismantle the state? Is high-tech science feasible in a degrowth future? What is the ultimate fate of money and markets? But also, might certain tactics alienate supporters, undermine our arguments and serve the interests of groups with a very different agenda from ours?