Share the Surplus: an ethic for survival

Permaculture is a way for people to live in harmony with one another and with nature. The three guiding ethics of Permaculture are:

  • Care for the Earth
  • Care for the People
  • Share the Surplus

A bleak picture is unfolding around us in the world now Mainstream press headlines suggest another great depression may be unavoidable, for example: CNN online’s headline: Is this the start of another Great Depression? . Many websites speculate on the possibility of bank holidays or credit card shutdowns, after a week of plummeting stock markets – bailouts, rate cuts, and direct Fed credit line flows. It’s difficult to imagine a modern day bank holiday – but if it did happen, it could result in groceries being cleaned out of food. What would the consequences of that be in today’s world?

Permaculture advocates the principle: “the problem is the solution”. Our current financial woes are said to come from exploitative behavior, greed, and self-interest. Could we “re-frame” this problem, such that it becomes a solution – one that embraces the “Share the Surplus” ethic? Strange as it may sound to be talking about “surplus” when we may be headed for a time that could be perceived as one of great scarcity of food, resources, money, etc.

First, an old joke:

“ A person dies and is greeted by an angel. They first go to observe what Hell looks like. What they see is a large room, with long tables laden with delicious food. But the people sitting around the table have their arms bound up in long “pincers” such that they are unable to bend their arms and bring the food to their mouths. There is a great wailing and moaning with the sounds of frustrated hunger, while they try in vain to feed themselves.

The recently deceased person is horrified at the sight, and asks the angel what it’s like in Heaven. The angel replies, “Oh, it’s the same setup, with tables of food and people’s arms bound up in pincers. But everyone is lifting up the food and feeding one another”.

Bank holidays and credit card shutdowns may not be as serious a problem for me and my family, with all the food that we grow and the dried grains and beans that we store. But if my neighbors don’t grow and store their own food as well, then they are going to want to eat mine. So I’ve been encouraging my neighbors to grow food for themselves over the years – creating a community garden, etc. But even if my neighborhood were self-sufficient, it wouldn’t matter if the neighborhoods down the road were not also preparing to feed themselves. Similarly even if my entire community of 20,000 people were all self-sufficient (requiring about 2,000 acres of food production), that wouldn’t keep neighboring communities from wanting to come take our food. So we need to be working regionally with all the communities in our bio-region so that they are all becoming self-sufficient around food production.

There are many other permaculturists around my state who are also working in their communities to build resilience. We recently organized a “Washington State Permaculture Convergence” for a 3-day gathering to share perspectives and skills, and to build relationships. There is a rapidly growing Permaculture movement nationwide – and we are well connected with one another through listserves and discussion boards. These online Permaculture communities share strategies and advice in how to help educate our respective communities in becoming self-sustaining and food-producing in a world that has begun drastic changes.

The network principle is already in place at the larger scale for providing leadership to communities. But what about some strategies for creating “abundance” at the grass-roots level?

Let’s look at two different “stories”. While there may be many ways in which a financial degradation might occur – a slow grinding recession that gradually slips into a full-blown depression or a singular “event” such as nationwide freeze-up of the credit card system – let’s consider a future in which there is high unemployment, food scarcity, homeless-ness. These are all potentialities that occurred in the 1930’s and could again happen in the event of an economic collapse.

Many believe the Depression that we may be seeing this time could become far worse than the Great Depression of the 30’s. (See “wave theory” chart). They suggest this Depression will be the “Grand Supercycle” depression, that was last seen in 1720. Without going long-wave theory, we can imagine the burgeoning effects of staving off a recession with the massive stimulatory effects of cash infusion into our system over the past ten years. We also were an agrarian society in the 30’s – that isn’t the case now, and if food transportation systems are cut off, things could become much more difficult than when my father was a boy in the Depression, always with enough to eat because he lived on a farm and there were farms near all the cities.

In the first story, food shortages are dealt with by begging from the homes with gardens at first. Then over time, the remaining food stores are taken by force. Those with stored food and productive gardens, expect the worst from their neighbors, and make sure they have plenty of arms and ammunition with which to protect themselves. They made sure they were themselves self-sustainable and feel it’s their neighbors’ own fault that they didn’t prepare for these hard times.

In the second story, the neighbors have been gathering together regularly to discuss their emergency preparedness plans and to figure out how to ensure that there is sufficient food and supplies in their neighborhood for extended periods of time when food transportation lines might be disrupted.. They get to know one another, and the talents, abilities and resources of everyone in their neighborhood. They know who has chainsaws, garden tools, and who knows how to forage and who knows how to butcher deer. In addition to their short-term plan for being able to support everyone on their block for 3 months with their food stores, they have a long-term plan for how they will be able to grow their food needs over the next several years. They work together to re-design their neighborhood for maximum food production – short-term and longterm. They utilize the skills present among their members, and also draw upon the expertise of permaculturists who live in other neighboring communities.

If either a slow or fast economic collapse actually come to pass, I would want to be living in a community in which neighborhoods have already organized as in the second story. But it would require a concerted effort to organize neighborhoods before the need arises, when there is still time to build trust relationships and prepare for the possibility of no food being available for 3 months or more.

It’s a difficult challenge to convince people of the need to prepare for the unknown future in such a drastic way, but might be well worth the effort, if economic collapse or even hardship does occur.

A simple rationale would be to ask a person what percentage she would give to the following future scenarios:

1. RECESSION: Life continues generally as it is now – a recession.

2. SLOW COLLAPSE: The recession gradually worsens until we’ve slipped into a depression.

3. FAST COLLAPSE: We have a sudden economic collapse: bank holidays, credit card freeze, stock market crash.

If a person believes the chance of SLOW COLLAPSE is 10% and the chance of FAST COLLAPSE is 5% (for example), then the question is, what would they want to do to prepare for each of these scenarios with low likelihood of occurring? The answer could be “Nothing: I will just take my chances by betting on RECESSION. Or it could be,, “Well, even though it’s a small likelihood, the consequences are so dire that I will go ahead and store up some grains and canned goods, and begin thinking about ways to grow more food in our neighborhood.”

A strategy for organizing neighborhoods might be to organize the group leaders in the community who have already been trying to organize neighborhoods for emergency preparedness for earthquakes – focusing on food and needs for a five-day emergency.

These group leaders could then become a steering group for organizing neighborhoods. Next a public “town meeting” could be held – inviting community residents to come to an informational and organizational meeting. At such a meeting, individuals could sit at tables organized by neighborhoods throughout the community. Neighboring groups could cluster as needed so that each group might have five-ten people. After a person would give a general rationale for why neighborhood groups should organize, the groups would talk among themselves and select neighborhood contact people and facilitators for the next phase of neighborhood meetings.

A follow-up meeting might then take place among the designated neighborhood facilitators, in which they work out a plan for how to engage with their respective neighborhood groups. This would be a “train-the-trainer” session.

After that, the facilitators would convene neighborhood meetings in the living rooms of willing volunteers. The neighborhood groups would meet regularly as needed to further develop their short-term and long-term strategies for neighborhood cohesion and support.

If such a neighborhood organization process were to occur, it would be much safer for all of us, if the banks were to close and credit card activity were frozen. With a large number of citizens prepared with food stores, there would be a feeling of abundance to take care of those citizens who didn’t choose to participate previously. The trust relationships could be initiated that would be necessary to take on other challenges, such as how to begin growing our own food and begin addressing other living needs.

This “each one. teach one” approach follows the Permaculture principle of “accelerating succession”, that could help us to make the shift from a paradigm of everyone for themselves, to an ethic of “Sharing the Surplus”..

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