8 January 2013

Financial Permaculture and Local Economic Vitality

Posted by Admin under: Community Development; Ecology; Economy; Food; Forum; Money; Neighborhoods; Resiliency; Sustainability .

On January 21-25, 2013, Earth Learning, the Financial Permaculture Institute, the Economic Development Council of South Miami-Dade, and Miami Dade College will host the 2013 Financial Permaculture and Local Business Summit, bringing together community investment and financial experts, permaculture designers, and local sustainability entrepreneurs to build greater resiliency in the local and regional economy of South Florida. During the 5-day event participants will work with the Miami-Dade Community, principally around strengthening the local food system, addressing the issue of “food deserts” and supporting the development of a 22-acre farm, food hub, farm-to-table cafe, and commercial kitchen. as part of Verde Gardens, a 145-unit community for formerly homeless people in Miami.

As one of the facilitators and keynote speakers, I’ve been giving some thought to the kinds of challenges we face in making our communities more resilient, more self-sufficient, and more sustainable. Here are some recent thoughts:

Financial Permaculture

The essence of permaculture has been summed up as: take care of the earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus. If we ran our economy this way, we might have a shot at creating sustainable prosperity.

Permaculture, to quote the Permaculture Institute’s definition, is

an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how to design natural homes and abundant food production systems, regenerate degraded landscapes and ecosystems, develop ethical economies and communities, and much more.[1]

It focuses on the patterns and interconnections between living things much more than on the individual organisms, and looks to the way nature sustains the adaptive biodiversity of natural landscapes and ecosystems.

Building on ecological principles and biomimicry, we can redesign  our economic system to mirror the ceaseless flows of energy and materials amongst cells and organisms that we observe operating flawlessly in the natural world:

Since permaculture focuses on the connections between things more than the parts, the design of resilient economies relies on each contributor to build a strong network. Many small businesses and contributors are valued over a few larger corporations. Decentralization of money flow allows money exchange a chance to slow, spread, and infiltrate into the local community. Strong economies are built from empowered individuals who supply needs of the local community, while meeting many of their own needs in the same community. Local business alliances and alternative currencies are sometimes used to facilitate this web weaving.[2]

If you dam things up, or pile them up too high in one place and put a fence around them, you can get some negative consequences, some dis-ease that can be alleviated by getting things flowing again, like the circulation of the sap or blood in a plant or animal. Health, wealth, and prosperity are not static things; they’re about flows.

Financial permaculturists begin by mapping the assets and the existing flows in the community or ecological system. They look for patterns, for the ways that knowledge and resources as well as money circulate within the system. They look at society as you might at a garden, to see if everything is growing and thriving and producing a surplus; or is, rather, spindly and wilted and poorly situated relative to the nutrients, the light, and the myriad other creatures that are needed to support the abundance of life.

It’s not widely known, for example, that in addition to the approximately ten trillion cells that make up the human body there are another one hundred trillion symbiotic organisms that make up what scientists call the microbiome. We are each one of us, in a sense, an entire community of organisms that function together as system; and the same is true for every plant and animal. In “Germs Are Us,” Michael Specter writes:

the human body turns out to be a vast, highly mutable ecosystem—each of us seems more like a farm than like an individual assembled from a rulebook of genetic instructions. Medicine becomes a matter of cultivation, as if our bacterial cells were crops in a field.[3]

How this shift in understanding affects our thinking about things like diseases is just beginning to penetrate the scientific and clinical community:

“We have to stop looking at medicine as a war between invading pathogens and our bodies,’’ [David A. Relman, professor of medicine, microbiology, and immunology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine] told me when we met at his office, at the V. A. hospital in Palo Alto, where he is chief of infectious diseases. “This sort of stewardship has more in common with park management than it does with our current practice of trying, in the broadest way possible, to kill microbes.”[4]

Similarly, our economies may need to be cultivated rather than rigidly regimented, bled by parasitic leaches, or sprayed with the fertilizers and insecticides of macroeconomic policies. When politicians or policy analysts look an ailing economy they often recommend some kind of shock therapy,[5] or system-wide policies that often have further devastating effects on local economies and communities. If we assume that an economy is more like a living organism than like a machine with a bunch of interchangeable parts, we may begin to understand what nurturance can do. It may not provide an immediate fix, but over the long term it may be able to grow a more sustainable community if it is nourished appropriately and shielded from external threats.

This leads to a focus on the “wealth of communities” rather than, in Adam Smith’s classic phrase, the “wealth of nations.” Countries typically measure their wealth in terms of GDP, which only measures the total value of a nation’s recorded financial transactions, regardless of whether they are spent on war or on peace, on polluting industries or on cleaning up their pollution, on disease-producing lifestyles or on the costs of health care to designed to counteract them. In local economies, however, it’s much easier to see the meaning of abundance and scarcity, of prosperity vs. poverty, of healthy lifestyles vs. social disarray. In a prosperous community we see well-kept homes and pristine neighborhoods, people out jogging or playing sports, active people and healthy landscapes, and we know that behind them are effective social institutions such as schools and libraries that help to sustain them. In poorer communities, by contrast, we see trash, broken-down buildings, listless people, and various kinds of low-level criminal activity, and we know instinctively that behind them are weak, corrupt, or nonexistent institutions.

A great deal of this still has to do with money, with how it’s used and generated and circulated, and whether it’s flowing into or out of communities. Money is attracted to growing neighborhoods, and is typically being sucked out of declining ones. Its circulation is a matter of many individual decisions, which are in turn made in the context of perceptions, interpretations, and expectations.

In Deep Economy (2007), Bill McKibben begins to address the wealth of communities and their contribution to the creation of a sustainable future. He argues that “most progress toward local economies will probably arise not so much from grand visions as from slow modifications” in such areas as food, energy, and communications, such as local newspapers and radio stations. He adds, “if you really want to make a local economy soar, the most important step might be to create a local currency.” He concludes by comparing Fair Trade with the so-called “free trade” of global economies:

In a sense, all discussion of local economies is about Fair Trade — about raising wheat and lettuce in a way that honors both farmer and soil; about growing timber in a way that allows loggers to work at a reasonable pace and in a living forest; about saving and producing energy in quantities that don’t require military adventures or climatic upheaval. About giving up some measure of efficiency for other values…. In a world where more people paid attention to the lives of farmers here and abroad — met them at the market or on the Net — it would be hard to maintain the current system of corporate subsidies and ruinous “free trade” agreements. If fairness demands a slightly higher price, and that means that we need to get along with somewhat smaller quantities, I am confident we will eventually find the tradeoff worth making.[6]


[1] http://www.permaculture.org/nm/index.php/site/key_concepts/
[2] Ibid.
[3] http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/22/121022fa_fact_specter#ixzz2HAFdAMM7
[4] Ibid.
[5] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007). Her focus is on “how America’s ‘free market’ policies have come to dominate the world– through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.” Other applications include the “shock therapy” being applied to the weaker Eurozone nations, and a number of the policies implemented in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (see http://shockdoctrinesummary.blogspot.com/2009/04/hurricane-katrina-louisiana.html).
[6] Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007)

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