WHEN PERMACULTURE COSTS THE EARTH

By pricing permaculture courses and certificates in the thousands of dollars, we inadvertently marginalise and silence minority groups and those already oppressed by the system – youth, women, people of colour, indigenous, the disabled, the mentally ill, and so on – and hence end up entrenching the very oppression our courses are intending to counter. As I wrote in the essay on Emissions Trading, reducing worth to merely what is quantifiable and monetary not only marginalises groups of people but also spheres or spaces of justice through overtly or covertly silencing discourses beyond money. In this blog, I’ll consider our psychological and cultural barriers to gift – which might be something we would almost expect to walk hand-in-hand with permaculture – and why pricing permaculture might result in systemically sidestepping the deeper psychology of gift altogether.

In my Permaculture Design Certificate at Auckland Permaculture Workshop, I would often look around and note that I was the only brown face in the room. I commented on this many times, also, in youth action group Generation Zero – which has thankfully since then grown to 25,000 members so ought to have far more cultural diversity (or so I hope – and in more recent years, I have been overjoyed to find opportunities like WWOOF and Workaway that enable me to directly exchange my time and energy for food and shelter. Thanks to Workaway and Couchsurfing, I was able to live on $2-$3 a day while in South America over 2016-2017. Thanks to the Youth Scholarship at APW, I was even able to do my PDC in the first place.

My most recent fascination has been with Koanga Institute’s $3000 one-month ‘Food, Soil and Health Internship’ programme which took place in September – which, to nobody’s surprise, I was unable to attend given the astronomically high cost for a programme where, truth be told, I would be living in a tent anyway. I don’t mind living humbly. My best month has been living in a tent for a month in the Andes, after all. I just felt extremely uncomfortable with the price tag, given I have been a volunteer for the past seven years, and also a student. Given the value of such courses, how much youth are craving and clamouring for this kind of knowledge, and the current state of earth and society, one might even go so far as to argue that this kind of learning should be THE most accessible knowledge on planet Earth right now, that ALL young people, regardless of financial means, ought to be able to have access to it.

Gaia University’s stellar Masters in Science programme specialising in Integrative Ecosocial Design doesn’t come cheap either – with no scholarship at all, it would total $33000NZD, money that no student/volunteer has just ‘sitting in their bank accounts,’ especially those already paying off a student loan almost twice that size. I remind myself, that I have been lucky, to win a 25% scholarship and have another 50% funded by friends and friends of friends. With the current economic climate, lack of job opportunities, particularly for youth, high housing prices, and high cost of living (especially food, such as in New Zealand), working fulltime to afford living costs and the Master’s fees and doing the programme on top would be almost suicidal for a young person deeply invested in self-care. And sure, the idea is that the Masters itself will springboard a ‘regenerative livelihood’ for the rangatahi, but I doubt that will pay the bills (for study and living) immediately or even fully – some other employment seems always necessary.

I remind myself that I am lucky, on so many counts, that I have the gift of our family home to live in, and the gift of the supporting community.

As I wrote in I just want to be rich, “Money is a tool, but not the only tool. Money is a ticket, but not the only ticket… Money becomes the liberator – and also the trap. It traps you into thinking that if you do not have enough of it, you cannot do what you want and you cannot ask for what you need or meet your needs in any other way. And you can never have ‘enough’. It traps you into thinking that simply asking is not enough, that you cannot just walk in the world with love – but rather, the best bet is with love and with money – that you cannot just receive unconditionally…”

The transactional system based on money entrenches utilitarianism – if I get something out of it, I will do it. Ultimately, it is a system based on guilt, fear and shame. And we are schooled in it at an early age: “Papa says you must do this because mama did x and y and z for you, and you must be grateful and you must show your gratitude by doing this for them,” or “Be a good boy so Santa will bring you presents.” Parents are the first to tell us that nothing comes free. That not even our upbringing, which was once upon a time a priceless gift from one capable human to a helpless infant, is sacred; that this too, must be transacted, the debts must be settled, the checkbook balanced. “You’re so ungrateful and selfish,” is the judgment we grow up hearing when we don’t do as they asked, when we choose to listen to our own needs. “You won’t ever learn to function in society,” they say, essentially implying that, “You are not worthy of love, connection or belonging.” The pretense is to ask children to do things out of ‘gratitude,’ but the so-called ‘request’ is in fact a demand, conditional, and implying that judgment, criticism and blame will ensue if it is not complied with – and hence children will do the dishes ultimately out of guilt.

No wonder we grow up hating chores. It is not because we have been taught that these are ‘lowly’ tasks, servant work, menial, boring or ‘women’s work;’ rather, it is because we have come to associate them of a fundamental guilt – the guilt of not being able to ‘pay back’ something we thought was freely and unconditionally given to us.

Receiving unconditionally

In the Moneyless Man, Mark Boyle argues that even barter does not come close to the spirit of gift. Barter, he argues, is still an exchange. Sure, it has the money component removed, but the giving of a good or service still comes with an expectation of payment (in kind), hence entrenches materialism, expectation and conditionality.

What are the experiences that have taught me about what gift really means? Hitchhiking, couchsurfing and travelling all come to mind. Putting myself out there, asking a stranger for directions, asking a stranger for help is a total act of vulnerability and trust. Through this, I have had the joy of experiencing unconditional giving. These strangers do not usually expect anything in return, but from the way their faces light up as they send me on my merry way, I know that it is a gift to them to be able to give. They take my gift of vulnerability and trust and cherish it. There are countless people whose names I do not know and will never know and who I will never be able to repay. They do not expect repayment. I do not expect to repay them – such a concept is laughable. Receiving unconditionally has taught me so much about giving unconditionally.

But, according to Marshall Rosenberg, we are terrified of receiving. We are terrified of receiving because we don’t know what gift means anymore, because nobody ever taught us. He says that we have a fear of receiving because,

“That’s probably because all their lives they have had people doing things for them and then sending them a bill. It’s scary, so now they don’t trust you either. They don’t realize there is another kind of giving, that there are people who give—not to take care of them—but from the heart.”

So what happens? We enter a relationship, say. And it is easy to give from the heart. For many people in love, anyway. But then the jackal rears its head. The gremlins start chattering. Instead of responding to joy with gratitude, we get what Brené Brown calls “foreboding joy” – which blocks vulnerability, blocks joy, stops us from feeling too much lest we get hurt, lest it all get taken away. The little voice says, Receiving this much is too good to be true. Life is too good to be true. There must be a catch. I’ll have to pay back for this, one way or another. So that leads to what I call ‘foreboding guilt’ – feeling guilt about something that hasn’t even happened yet; the giver has not asked us to pay back, instead, we have merely erected the story in our heads of payback. Instead of receiving unconditionally, receiving with grace, we tell ourselves, she always does the dishes and I haven’t done them once this week. Even if it doesn’t matter to her, even if she knew this week you were sick, you were busy, you were doing your best, you make up the story that, she’s keeping score. If I don’t ‘pay her back,’ she will no longer love me.

Here’s the sick part: WE create the ‘story’ of guilt in our minds but we blame the OTHER person for making us feel guilty. Then comes the guilt blame-game. Now we say to the other person, “You are selfish. You don’t really care about me. You only did those things expecting something in return.” It is unfathomable to us how someone could have done anything at all, expecting nothing in return, so we create a story of guilt which we then project onto them as a form of self-protection. To stop us getting hurt. To gain control – over them, over us, over the situation. And it’s precisely what stops us connecting. Rosenberg’s definition of love, after all, is not doing what the other person asked you to (or what you THINK they asked you to do). Rather, it is being able to say, here I am, and this is what I would like.

The Skeleton Woman comes back to remind us that there are things that Lady Death takes with her, that the Life/Death/Life force is there to revise, recast, reconnect, that these are the things that will be put to rest if a thriving relationship is to continue.

I experienced this first-hand with my parents. While away in South America, I had created the story in my head that they had done so much for me that they would somehow expect me to ‘pay them back’ (financially or otherwise) when I returned to New Zealand. I MYSELF created that story that I SHOULD feel guilty, then made THEM responsible for my guilt – essentially projecting blame onto them for my feelings. When I returned and confessed openly to my father that I felt awkward, that I didn’t have much to give (financially), that I just asked for the gift of his space, he cried and said he had never expected anything from me in the first place. He said that the gift of how I had subconsciously transformed the household already was something he would never be able to pay back. He said that the gift of nutrition and living my values that I had given – given without meaning to – had taken ten, fifteen years off his life. That’s something, he said, that was priceless. He is 55 now; he looks no different from when he was 30.

I experienced this also, in my volunteering. There was already a ‘transactional’ arrangement set up: you volunteer, and in return, you get a place to sleep and food in your belly. Sounds innocuous enough. But many volunteers – myself included – wondered if they were ‘doing enough’ to earn their keep. They wondered if they were (good) enough, and often did far more than the 5 hours per day necessary. They felt awkward if they didn’t. They had come from a culture where if they didn’t do enough, they were rejected – fired, laid off, incompetent. Few learnt the ability to do their work as a gift unconditional on the gift they received in return. Few learnt the ability to simply receive the gift of shelter and food, unconditional on the gift they gave in return. So here’s what I realised:

Our capacity to give unconditionally is only as great as our capacity to receive unconditionally.

 

Asking for what we want

This explains, also, why we find it so hard to ask for something we need. We are afraid, of course, to hear no. It is not, in fact, the no that bothers us but rather the story we make up when we hear the no: that we are not worthy, that they are rejecting us, when all they are really saying is yes to some other needs. We find it hard to hear: “I have other needs right now, other than to meet your needs.” We also find it hard to ask for what we need because we are afraid we may be judged for having certain feelings and needs, for being judged as being ‘too needy’ or ‘too sensitive.’

But it is also hard to ask for something we need simply because it involves being able to fully grasp the possibility that someone might actually just want to receive our feelings, needs and requests as a gift, and want to give to us for no other reason that that it brings them joy and delight to do so. We don’t know how to ask without fear, because we don’t know how to receive without fear. We are both afraid of rejection through not getting the need met (i.e. a no) and our self-created story of foreboding rejection when we do get our needs met and think that if we don’t feel ‘guilt’ about returning the favour, we will no longer be loved. It’s a double-edged sword.

If we cannot receive unconditionally, it will be very hard for us to ask without fear.

Giving unconditionally

This also, funnily, explains why we find it so hard to fulfill a totally open, flexible and unconditional request others have made of us as an invitation. Even if a request is framed perfectly as a request, with all the love, care and attention, and no expectation is intended whatsoever of it being fulfilled or not, for those of us who are sensitive to receiving and sensitive to asking, of course, we then become also sensitive to giving. When that sensitivity is high enough, anything sounds like a demand. You could read demands into a rock, Rosenberg’s wife tells him. It doesn’t matter how much someone tries to convince us that they really don’t feel attached to their request at all, that they offer it as a gift, that there is no expectation of fulfillment at all, that they understand they really cannot ever make us do anything – we create a story of obligation to protect our autonomy. And we do it through saying no to try and – once again – gain control. And trying to control the hell out of everything is just another way that we reinforce the Story of Separation.

“Whenever people say “no” like that, they’re scared to death that their autonomy is going to be taken away. They’re afraid that if they really hear what the other person wants, they’re going to get sucked up and have to do it whether they want to or not. So when a person says “no” like that, we know that they didn’t hear our request. It has nothing to do with us; it’s obviously not a rejection because they didn’t even hear the request they heard demand.

“It’s so very precious for us to be able to do things when we choose to do them—not because somebody we love has to have it or they’re going to freak out, or because they are going to keep talking at us until we do. People are very scared of spending so much of their lives having to give when it’s not from the heart. So they’re very reactive. He says: “Just get it! Just understand. I just do not want to do this today. I just need to protect my autonomy.”

“Just be aware if he’s like most men—if my wife is right—he’ll need about three incarnations to get past that. [Laughter] So in the meantime, go and get some women friends and just don’t aggravate yourself. My wife once said about the best one-liner I’ve ever heard; she said to me, “You could read demands into a rock.” [Laughter] I said, “Guilty as charged.”

Rosenberg says that love is…giving of ourselves in a certain way. So if we cannot give, receive and ask unconditionally, it will be very hard for us to love unconditionally.

Independent vs interdependent

“Money promises that, if only we acquire enough of it, we can be independent. We can be independent of the people around us: “I don’t need their help – I can pay for whatever I need.” We can be independent of the nature around us: “If the water is polluted, I can buy it in bottles. If the soil is toxic, I can buy organic food from afar. In the worst case I can afford to move away.”

“Here, then, is another illusion: we cannot actually achieve independence via money. All we can do is transfer our dependence from one place to another: from the people and places around us, to money and the distant institutions it associates us with. In fact, we are connected beings, utterly dependent on the rest of life to sustain us. Civilized humanity has denied that dependency for a long time, seeking lordship over Nature, transcendence of Nature. Money has been part of that illusion of mastery. But today we are moving into an ecological age, seeking to rejoin the circle of life in all its dimensions – ecological and social.”

— Charles Eisenstein, preface to the Moneyless Manifesto by Mark Boyle

The divisive language of the jackal teaches us to try and be independent – to have no needs, to not rely on anyone else except ourselves (generally facilitated through money, status or power), and hence remove the need for asking, receiving and giving altogether. This removes any need for connection at all and might fall under what MKP terms ‘perpetrator.’

Another way the jackal shows up is in dependence – to have needs but always make others responsible for meeting (or failing to meet) these needs, playing ‘victim,’ and entrenching blame, projecting guilt and so on. Interestingly, this also removes the need for connection, since when we ASSUME a priori that others HAVE TO meet our needs, we also ASSUME they will also just magically know what they are, and often fail to state them. This also removes the need for asking, receiving and giving, since all of these would require some level of ‘owning’ the need (rather than being owned by it). And when these needs aren’t met by others – which they never will be, 100% – we blame them for our circumstances, and we use that to justify the story that we are not good enough, that we are not worthy of love, connection and belonging.

Being responsible for meeting our own needs does not mean being independent, however. We live in a highly interconnected world. Perhaps if we could survive on a spaceship in a vacuum…there would be some kind of ‘independence’ from all other matter. But the truth is that we are social and ecological beings, so it is impossible to be. We can only inter-be. We rely on a million different ecological processes to sustain us – from the hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle to bees, tubers, wind pollination…and so on. To deny that reality is to deny the Story of Interbeing. And a million different social processes intersect to enable us to live the life we live now, from the iPhone we hold in our hands, to the house we live in, to the roads we ride on…and so on. It is impossible to be independent in the strictest sense of the word. LIFE itself – no matter which species we take – is about giving unconditionally and receiving unconditionally, with no expectation of return.

By confusing interdependence with dependence and being frightened by the guilt and blame game the latter inevitably entails, we risk not being vulnerable, and we risk missing out on connection altogether. By forgetting interdependence and erring on the side of independence, we also risk missing out on connection altogether. And connection is a fundamental human need.

Permaculture and Gift

In Mark Boyle’s utopic moneyless world, it is easy to imagine how a localised community based on the principles of gift could function, enabling skills such as permaculture to be demoractised and available for diverse groups of people.

But we are in a space between stories, according to Eisenstein. We live in a world where it is hard to look around and point to a single thing that we have in our house that money did not buy – even for those of us who have veggie gardens, we admit money was required to buy seeds, buy tools, buy the pickup truck…and so on. We live in a world where money still exists, so of course, there are totally legitimate costs to running a PDC and practitioners may often just hope to break even. Few are trying to become permaculture entrepreneurs – with everything that entails – the language of market surveys, innovation, demand, supply, unique selling point, market opportunities, customer satisfaction and so on. I am also aware that permaculture practitioners are not unaware of the inaccessibility of their courses – that’s why they encourage sliding scales, scholarships, using costs as participants’ first ‘design challenge,’ barter, sponsorship/grants, creative fundraising, crowdfunding, paying by volunteering, concession pricing, earlybird offers and more.

But this isn’t about justifying the system. This isn’t about saying if permaculture practitioners are right or wrong to charge four-figure prices or how to mitigate the inequities entrenched by those.

This is about exploring the discourse of exchange/transaction versus the discourse of gift. This is about broadening the sphere of the discourse without getting caught up in utilitarianism or being despaired by feasibility. This is about imagination, play and non-attachment to outcome.

While I am interested in exploring how the discourse of money has impacted our psychological relationship with gift – giving, asking and receiving – I do not mean to suggest that money itself is an evil. That would be entrenching the ‘us-vs-them’ paradigm, entrenching the Story of Separation, entrenching blame, denying personal responsibility and projecting the fault for our own guilt onto some external entity. In the preface to Boyle’s Moneyless Manifesto, Eisenstein writes:

“None of this means that living moneyless is the only way to enter the spirit of the gift. After all, money itself can be given as a gift. However, money as we know it is fraught with noxious, disconnecting states of consciousness that are contrary to that spirit: scarcity, anxiety, grasping, competition. Going moneyless is therefore a short-cut to the spirit of the gift.

“What about the collective level? Can we build a society on the spirit of the gift? And would this necessarily be a moneyless society? Perhaps so, in the long run, but even then we will need some way to circulate various forms of wealth, to coordinate labor over vast social distances, and to direct human creativity toward a common purpose. Money, although increasingly dysfunctional today, is supposed to perform these functions. In a more enlightened society, money would do so while evoking a whole new set of intuitions about wealth, security, and the nature of work, and a different way of being in and relating to the world. Indeed, I and many other theorists are working on how to transform money so that it is no longer the enemy of ecology, sustainability, justice and abundance.”

Through opening up my home to Couchsurfing guests, hitchhiking, volunteering and feeling comfortable receiving and asking, I have been experimenting with need and gift. Going forward, I am interested in continuing to explore the spiritual realm of gift and un-conditionality and see how it might better intersect with spaces of learning and design such as permaculture, which are so important for addressing the challenges we face. In principle, such a system might better heal the deep dis-ease we face on planet Earth through first healing it within ourselves – through re-invoking the language of the heart, and re-appreciating values such as love, gratitude, joy, openness, empathy, connection and non-violence. What such a system looks like, I don’t know. I haven’t come across many purely gift-based systems to be able to outline it in any detail.

However, not knowing now will not dissuade me from living my life as a gift to find out.

What are your thoughts and feelings? Do you find it easy to receive? Do you find it easy to ask for what you need, without (current or foreboding) shame, guilt or fear? Can you receive with grace?

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