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A Better Way of Making a Living

Making a living in our modern culture usually requires that you participate in the destruction of the world. We can’t go back to Homo hunter-gatherer. Is there another way forward?

There is an another way to make a living that enables you to do what you love and save the world at the same time. I call it the “middle way” of making a living between our modern industrial system and hunter gathering. This is a deep subject that deserves to have several books written about it.

Saving the World and Sustainability

What do we mean by saving the world? We mean humanity continuing in some fashion without taking tens of millions of species down with us. Today our culture is solely responsible for the greatest mass extinction since the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I say, “our culture,” because humanity has lived in harmony with the earth for three or four million years. The problem is not humanity. The problem is our culture, our growth, and how we make a living.

Some believe that sustainability involves living in a manner that does not diminish the prospects of future generations. That is an “all about humanity” definition that needs to be discarded.

True sustainability has our species, like all others, living in harmony with the ecosystem or Gaia. True sustainability is measured by the growth, not of human population, but of topsoil and biodiversity. These two are the only evolutionarily proven measures of sustainability, and have nothing to do with humanity’s success or failure. Permaculture, by allowing succession and by using natural structures such as a forest or an old field, is the best examples I know of that both builds top soil and allows for species biodiversity growth.

Why do we need the other species? In some respects we don’t. But in the long run we do. We need the full resilience of the earth’s ecosystems to adapt to an ever changing world. I also believe that the true measure of our intellect is not what we can take or build, but what we can nurture and leave alone.

Yes, we may be the first to reach this level of consciousness, but the question is are we going to be the last, or are we the mentors for those that will follow over the next few million years?

Honestly, for this to happen our modern monoculture and civilization most likely is going to have to be replaced by a wide diversity of earth friendly cultures. Humanity may be able to continue in a powered down version of what we have for the next 10-20 years. If our culture manages to survive in the long run, it will be in a monoculture desert of our own making. The sad thing is that future generations will not know or appreciate what it was like today just as we don’t know what it was like 200-300 years ago.

Tribal Way of Making A Living

A tribe is a group of people working together to make a living, sharing equally, and with no hierarchy. Generally, tribes are fewer than 150 people. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized this number of people to be the limit with whom we can maintain stable social relationships in which we know each person. He suggests that numbers larger than this require more restricted rules, laws, and enforcement.

All profits, losses, and finds are shared equally. Decisions are made by consensus. It appears that ownership, at least initially, is not so important when getting started. However, since private property leads to hoarding and is a disincentive to sharing, it should be eliminated. All non-household assets should also be communal or part of the commons.

A New Ethic and World View

Here is where it starts to get new. We need to embrace a new world view or honestly remember the original one. Chief Seattle in his 1854 speech and Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael taught that the world is a sacred place and humanity has a place in it. Another way of saying this is that humanity belongs to the earth, our ecosystem, and Gaia.

This is the opposite of the world view that our ancestors created 2,000 years ago that humanity is flawed, we are sinners, and the earth is a proving ground to see whether we are worthy to go to a better place when we die. This belief gave us a “dominion” which we have to relinquish if we, or at least, most of the other species are going to survive.

Permaculture is also based on three central ethics:

  1. “Care of the earth” means that our number one priority is taking care of the earth, making sure we don’t damage its natural systems.
  2. “Care of the people” means meeting people’s needs so that people’s lives can be sustained and have a good quality of life as well but without damaging the earth.
  3. “Accepting limits to population and consumption” is realizing that as a human species we cannot continue to increase and also sustain the planet. Sometimes you will hear this ethic phrased as “share the surplus, invest all of your means in the first two ethics.” This means limiting your consumption so that you can invest your resources in caring for the earth and caring for the people.

These ethics translate to making a living in a way that does not participate in destruction of the earth. This means more than not starting a toxic chemical or genetic engineering lab.

This may mean that will have to shift back to giving support to get support instead of making things to get things. A healthy self reliant local community focusing on each other and on giving support will provide greater cradle-to-grave security than our “all about me” culture.

If we are going to make products, they need to be made and consumed by the local community, bioregion, or watershed. If products are made for export and not just local use, the level of consumption will again lead to the depletion of local resources. I see this just driving around Oregon and Washington in the form of missing forests. In Peru 60 people just died in clashes between indigenous protestors and police over drilling for oil and gas in the rain forest. Defending your local resources and bioregion from outside interests is serious business.

Produce what you need now and some reserves, but not a large surplus that can be concentrated. If you concentrate resources or work within a hierarchy, you again will encourage hoarding, and take away the incentive to share.

Develop Community Self Reliance

One of the keys to the success of the Amish is that they do not operate in a way that creates entanglements with modern culture. Their aversion is more about the entanglement and not so much against technology. For example, the Amish use wood wheels which they can manufacture and repair themselves. They do not use rubber wheels because they don’t want to be dependent on modern culture. The Amish have nothing against rubber, but they do not want to be dependent upon us.

No individual or even a small group of people can be an island. It will take enough people working together as a community to bring one or both legs out of modern culture. Maybe one will have to work a day job while building skills and a tribal business with your friends. This will be a process not an overnight revolution. Remember though, petrocollapse will not conform to a gradual or delayed schedule for our convenience.

Set Aside Time for Yourself

Start by doing what you love to do. You will become good at it, enjoy your work, and will make the biggest impact with your life that way.

Don’t work more than maybe 30 hours per week. This not only allows for employment of more people, but it gives you time to work on yourself, to study, grow, explore, and self-actualize. This is part of the reason our culture is stuck where it is. People are worked so much and not given a holistic education to think for themselves. Develop your vocabulary, arts, music, mental constructs, travel, and just general self-actualize. So powerdown, give away a bunch of your stuff, and reduce your overhead.

How to Get Started

Based on my experience as an entrepreneur, I would say follow the path of least resistance and watch for serendipity. Try multiple things and see which one gets the most traction. Walk before you run. Try your ideas on a part-time or hobby basis before committing. You could start with your neighbors and each could plant a different fruit or nut tree and you could exchange harvests in the fall. Create a micro-neighborhood edible perennial nursery business. The possibilities are endless. Have fun with it.

One idea I am considering is to start by creating a virtual community. We cannot all move in next door to each other overnight, but like-minded people could put their properties into a land trust for the benefit of the community. It may also be easier to coalesce closer together over time as the opportunities arise.

At Restoration Farm we are trying to build a tribal permaculture farm. We hope to be mostly chemical and fossil fuel free. The fossil fuels we use are largely for infrastructure setup and not so much for planting and harvesting. We will be experimenting with U-pick blueberries and food forest, and compost for reduced food cost models.

In regards to finding like-minded people, try hosting a potluck to discuss neighborhood sustainability. See who shows up. Learn about permaculture, and consider taking a two week intensive permaculture design course (PDC). You will meet your tribe of like-minded people there.

Finding a benevolent way of making a living that allows you to do what you love and to not participate in the destruction of the world is a journey of a lifetime.

Visit to read the blog, visit the Culturequake book store, and learn more about the book Culturequake: The Fall of Modern Culture and the Rise of Earth Culture. ©2009 Chuck Burr LLC


Daniel Quinn

Dunbar’s Number

Susan Blackmore
The Meme Machine

John Hostetler
Amish Society

Jan Lundberg
As surely as the red sun rises: Rebelling against extinction

Toby Hememway
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture

Geoff Lawton
The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia

Peter Bane
Permaculture Activist


  1. I agree with some issues in this article; however, there are statements made of which are completely false. The world view if far from a Christian view which is what appears to be the allegation here, not to mention the allegation made is completely false. Who ever wrote that statement is completely ignorant on the subject.

    Another point is accepting limits to population. I agree we over consume and need to limit that; however, this notion we need to limit population is a eugenics idea. The earth takes care of populations with no need for help.

    Outside of these two points I agree with most of the article. We have become a self-centered, materialistic society who wants everything we don’t need and ignores that of which we do need.

  2. Agree with the post above. Although that Christian view is shared by a well organized group of evangelical Christians, it’s not the only one. Just look at all the talk now about “Creation Care”. The thing that people seem to forget is that permaculture is all about diversity–well diversity amongst people is part of that. You can’t have unity with it. We need to be tolerant of other people’s views, not just right them off, because then we are no better than they are. I understand what you’re saying, it frustrates me deeply to see people like Bush that seem to just follow this blind faith, but really is that the best way to explain Christianity? It’s so much deeper than that. We don’t know everything, if we say we do, it’s our own super ego convincing us of that, and if we are really part of this new consciousness, we’re never to get where we need to be, if we are intolerant of other people’s views. Seriously.
    Would recommend reading Van Jones book the Green Collar Economy as well as Eckart Tolle’s A New Earth.

  3. Would you, by any chance, like to rephrase that to make slightly more sense, Jacob? If you must accuse Chuck Burr of being ignorant, perhaps you would like to give some evidence that you, yourself, are not?

  4. Good article Chuck. All the evidence I have seen and read suggests simplifying and sourcing our needs locally is the only answer for sustainability. As you have mentioned social, cultural and environmental aspects seem to be well balanced in smaller communities. I dont know much about the Amish but I think their experience in existing with little outside influence might be much sought after in the not too distant future.

  5. I read the article twice and don’t see where it is Christian-centric at all. He’s talking about civilisation being unsustainable. Yes he references 2,000 years ago, so I would disagree with that conclusion. Civilisation has been around a lot longer than that. And wherever civilisation has been, we’ve torn down the forests and left deserts in our footsteps. Whether Eastern or Western.

    Having read “Ishmael” and “The Story of B” many years ago, I’ve spent many years struggling with how to implement these ideas. With tribalism looking so much like communism, though not being it (not even communism is actually communism anyway), it’s easy for many to misunderstand the intent behind these ideas. At the same time, as Bill Mollison says, “It’s a matter of scale.”

    We need to return to a more human scale and leave the civilsation-scale behind (whether it’s a democratic, plutocratic, communist, or dictatorship, etc. approach). That is going to mean reducing our population, not through genocide but through the intelligent decision to have only enough children to sustain our “tribes”.

    I thoroughly agree with many of the ideas presented here and will read some of the books and websites mentioned. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. My bad. Obviously I skimmed over the part about sinners and such. It would have been better to refer strictly to civilsation since it isn’t only Christian-centric civilsation that is the problem.

  7. Simply, “progress”, so-called, is destroying the earth(land, air, water, vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Light, Life, Truth, Love, Peace, Hope, Grace, Miracles, Faith, etc.) ;-(

    Postings have been made at concerning such destruction and perversion and also concerning The Creator’s(G-D, Father) promise that HE will “destroy those who destroy the earth(HIS Creation)!” (Rev11:18c)

    Yet there is a Living, Lively Hope!

    However, such Hope is not for that which is of the earth, earthly and fleshly, but there is a Living, Lively Hope for that which is Spirit, Heavenly and Spiritual.

    Hope for that which is Spirit is Alive because “progress”, which is the product of mankind’s “imag”ination, can pervert, yet not destroy that which is Spirit! For that which is Spirit is Real, and that which is Real is Forever!

    So no matter how perverse this world’s systems of religion become, that which is Spirit can only be abused and perverted, not destroyed!

    That which is Spirit is Eternal…….

    As for that which is called “religion”.

    “Pure religion and undefiled before G-D The Father(Creator) is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself uncontaminated by the world.” (James 1:27)

    Simply, every other religion is impure and defiled!

    As stated previously, “that which is called “”progress” is of mankind’s “imag”ination and can pervert, yet not destroy, that which is Spirit”, and so it is that this world, and it’s systems of religion, have their version of “Light”, which can be turned on and off;

    Their version of “Truth”, which is of the “imag”ination;

    Their version of “Love”, which should be called lust;

    Their version of “Peace”, which needs be enforced;

    Their version of “Hope”, which is but a desire for temporal “things”;

    Their version of “Faith”, which is powerless;

    Their version of “Grace”, which is the liberty to “do your own thing”;

    And sadly, the favorite color of this world’s religion is gray ;-(

    So come out of the shadows! And as is said by many, “Get Real”!

    Once again, “only that which is Spirit is Real, and only that which is Real is Forever”!

    Hope is there would be those who “see” that The Life is in and of The Spirit. Those who “see” will no longer have their portion with the multitudes who are destroying the earth(and, air, water, creatures, vegetation) and perverting that which is Spirit(Light, Life, Truth, Love, Peace, Hope, Faith, Grace, etc.) ;-(

    Simply, each breath(Spirit) you take is a revelation of The Source of Life.

    And “A Simple and Spiritual Life is the only Life that will survive!”


    So “set your affections on Heavenly things” and be not of those “whose god is their bellies because they mind earthly things”. Be not of those who “love this world and it’s things” and who are “progress”ively destroying the earth(land, air, water, vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Light, Life, Truth, Love, Peace, Hope, Faith, Grace, etc.)…….

    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world and it’s systems of religion, for “The WHOLE world is under the control of the evil one” (1John5:19) indeed and Truth…….

    Truth is never ending……. TheDestructionOfTheEarth.Wordpress.Com

  8. Hmm. Doing what you love, walk before you can run, etc… I’m sorry but these vague aphorisms don’t cut it. We need clear steps that can be executed at the individual level and properly scale out. The only thing close to that I’ve seen is the transition town movement. I find it disheartening that after 30+ years permaculture hasn’t really been able to break out of the fringes. Even in its birthplace of australia where water woes are building to the point of catastrophe, permaculture has yet to reach critical mass. Old habits persist. I don’t know whether this reflects a flaw in the permaculture concept or just a lack of skill at selling the concept. But it’s worth asking why it hasn’t taken off yet and what can be done to change that.

  9. Permaculture hasn’t ‘taken off yet’ because ‘selling’ the concept is not what we are interested in. The choice to live ethically and in harmony with natural cycles cannot be made purely by exposure to the sensible ‘clear steps’ you speak of. Under the current individualistic, disconnected paradigm of Western culture, Permaculture as an instruction booklet is doomed to failure like any other imposed system. There are no clear steps that apply to all people, Permaculture gives the basis for ethical decisions, and the rest comes from observation, dedication, good intention, and strengthening connection with natural systems.

  10. This article seems a little socialistic and anti-Christian. Permaculture is a culture for living, and in our societies no believes should be supressed or be imposed on other, in NO ways. Then our Permaculture societies will become sects, and being excluding. Therefore there shall NEVER be a cultural vision in a permaculture society, except for permaculture itself. Escpecially I’m afraid for powers within New Age, which trie to occupy Permaculture as a part of an alternative life style. Permaculture must be the natural choice for everyone, from ateists to muslims. It shal not be excluding, but including. We shal only be joined together in Permaculture, not in any other kind of cultures and believes. Simply, Permaculture is for EVERY KIND of culture, worldwide. Permaculture is not an alternative, it’s the only alternative!

    Everybody knows that not everybody will share everything with everybody else. This is nonsense, and has nothing to do with Permaculture. An alternative can be local currencies. I think there are many ways to solve this problem. Anyway, communism has failed. If we make Permaculture to look like socialism, Permaculture will fail as well.

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