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Is Personal Effort Enough?

Just three years ago my young family and I made the move to rural Victoria, handing in our cushy government jobs for the dream of sustainable living based on Permaculture.

One of the reasons we chose to settle in a conventional rural environment rather than an established permaculture region/village was to ‘forge new frontiers’ for Permaculture. “If we can do it here, surely people could do it anywhere!”. Maybe this was misguided, especially since one of the difficulties for me is a lack of desire to be a leader – it is difficult for me to think beyond showing through demonstration. In some respects perhaps an intentional community may have been a better option for me, but now I’m on this path it is increasingly more difficult to move as the system still requires us to use money in order to escape it. Also, I don’t know that I would be content with a closed community that has no room for expansion.

I believe the best way to affect change is to be the change that you wish to see in the world. I’ve meditated on this famous phrase of Gandhi’s for many years now and the inherent truth of it reveals itself in greater detail for me the more I ponder it. Gandhi’s wisdom has shaped the way I approach my Permaculture practices. If I do it, and do it with all my heart then I may influence people and in turn allow them to influence others, and ultimately the world. I still believe this but, at times it seems like I am just a snowball throwing myself at the sun and saying ‘cool it man!’. It seems that this personal passive approach is just not enough.

Any movement will have a greater lasting effect if it is a grass roots movement. But, I am thinking we need to do more than we are currently; that we need to become a much more cohesive force able to take on the system with an organised pro-active approach. At the very least we need to build a permaculture community that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Many of us find ourselves, for what ever reason, working in isolation, attempting to do what it takes a village to achieve. While some of us are highly skilled, few of us have all the strengths it takes to go it alone. If you are like me this leaves you feeling like a cog with out a machine.

So the question then becomes what can we do in our personal efforts to build the machine around us? The sort of communities I feel we are all looking for are ones where every person is free to play to their strengths and are supported in their limitations. I believe the thing most of us are really looking for in permaculture is real community. I think many of us see society is broken. And I believe that saving the planet is synonymous with saving humanity. While there are long-term ‘permies’ out there, who have been working away at their own projects and having some personal success, others are finding that the lack of structural support, is pushing them back toward the mainstream because it is just not possible to do this thing alone. I think many would agree that, despite the successes, the over all effect permaculture is having on society is negligible.

All this is not to suggest that the personal effort is not still the most important thing we can do. However, it seems sometimes we forget that our garden and our little permie-pads are not actually the main game, but metaphors for the rest of our lives.

I had a poor tomato crop last year which I accepted with grace at the time, but more recently I was contemplating the tomatoes as a symbol of my personal efforts. I was struck by the thought that if the lives of my family relied on the way I was gardening I would surely be going to greater efforts. What I really need to do is to ‘Garden as though my life depended on it.’ If my family’s lives depended on it, I would soon learn how to be a better grower.

The realisation that I don’t already garden as though my life depends on it was a bit of a shock to me. We still haven’t taken our lives seriously enough to treat anything we can readily get ‘off farm’ as a luxury. I started to realise that I am only dabbling in this — because my mindset isn’t one that says I am in danger if I don’t do a better job. Just like the way society is treating the environmental problems we face. That is to say, until it directly threatens our way of life in tangible ways we are not likely to take it seriously, or at least not as seriously as we need too. I think many of us think we can dabble in it; do bits and pieces and grow a few things in our back yard whilst still living mostly in the comfortable consumer world. Of course there are exceptions, perhaps many, but they are not the face society is seeing or recognising as permaculturists and permaculture. The overwhelming representation is that you can do a little bit and that is OK. We don’t seem to be living as though our lives depend on it, because for all intents and purposes in this moment, they don’t. The motive must come from with in, we must rise above our reptilian minds that seem content when our stomachs are full, with no thought of where the next feed might come from — ‘we’ll deal with that later!’

I think we need to start living as though the shit has already hit the fan. Because most likely it has — it’s just that the main chunks and splatter haven’t blown in our particular direction yet.

So here is my new mantra; Live as though your life depends on it, or more accurately…. Be the change you wish to see in the world and live as though your life depends on it.

I think the personal effort is all we really have to work with and it will only be enough if it is a really, really big personal effort. Effort being the operative word, because if it is no real effort then it is no effort at all. But I also think we need to expand our concepts of personal effort out beyond the garden and food forests and make our greater personal effort in community building. Sometimes I think a good effort is not enough — it needs to be our best effort. I recently heard David Suzuki discussing what we do and how it translates into real change. What keeps him going is that on his death bed he can tell his grand children he did the best he could.

For those who are relying on the isolated personal effort, perhaps these words that often sustain me will offer you something while the permaculture community starts to coalesce.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Stephen Mitchell

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  1. Thank you for writing and submitting this! The topic has been moving through my mind throughout the past few weeks and my conclusion is similar to yours. Go inside, see what resides and let it fall away. The rest of our reality follows suit.

    Cultivate with intent on meeting needs — physically, spiritually and communally. The most crucial aspect of a permaculture design seems to show itself as the human element. Community supports both external and internal work, both of which seem more and more necessary as we climb out of this murky period together.

  2. Well written Grahame and you are not alone in your thoughts.
    The problem I see is that most Permie people are isolated in their own place. Even people using community gardens are in some way isolated as they are growing etc. for themselves and living separately. I have spent some time at Crystal Waters and some communities in NNSW and they are living the same way. Sure they are living with like minded people and get together, help each other and havecreated a community but essentially they are all still individuals with their own plot fo land.
    I think what you are pining for is a true permaculture village where everyone is working towards a similar goal, food is grown together and shared. All houses are located within walking distance of each other, there are communal spaces for gathering. Maybe the solution is to take over a dying country town and reinvent it.

  3. Hi Grahame,

    Sucks to hear that you cant just escape the money system and live in rural vic. I guess community has to be built otherwise you rely on a monetary system to provide you with your short comings; ie needing to buy something from a shop, rather than trade it with a neighbor. I agree, we are way too comfortable now. Theres no “imminent threat”. Either that or we have compensated that threat to our high stress jobs.

  4. Hi Grahame, Many thanks for putting your thoughts on display.
    Like Mark A, I have been ruminating on this topic since completeing a PDC recently, and am now really getting into the home garden to get it up to speed so we can support ourselves totally with vegies, and build up our resilience on other fronts as well.

  5. Hi Grahame,

    IMO, you are not alone and I agree with you, we all operate in silos. I have been pondering this very question for a long time but don’t have an answer nor come to any real conclusion. There appears to be various models out there (Transition Town, How to Build a Village, etc.) and each have their merits and very similar in principles. I salute you and your family for taking the plunge. Perhaps going back one step, the question is how do does one do it? To try and remove oneself from the current system while the alternative is still a work in progress. We do need more people to come on board before we can make a noticeable impact. Thank you for sharing your insight and view points.

  6. Thanks for the writing Grahame – appreciate the thought and effort taken to write this.

    I have a friend who has lived in a quiet country place for over 30 years. Her property is now threatened by a gold mine less than 3 ks away.

    The BIG industrial and political machine can destroy our permie gardens and lifestyles as fast as a bulldozer rips up land. This is the major problem. We can only stop that with massive change – and I just don’t see that coming. Building permie properties cannot be the sole answer. If we want to tackle the big issues, we have to change the system (or build another) root and branch. We have to mobilise, engage politically and take collective action. Hard and difficult stuff – and this is the area that destroys morale, and takes a huge personal toll. Easier to work in the garden!

    My other comment is that I think permaculture does not do enough marketing of its solutions to the general public. Just because it’s an elegant solution to sustainable human settlement, does not mean that it gets adopted – many innovative things don’t get off the ground.

  7. Thank you for your insights Grahame – it rings true as a direction we need to step, or perhaps leap, in.

    I have found it very inspirational and have produced a poster for the fridge.

    “Be the change you wish to see in the world and live as though your life depends on it.”

  8. I am really glad thIs was posted. From what I see here, you are a leader mate. while leadership may be popularly synonymous with an authoritative style, standing up, making noise, creating stuff, making others believe, etc, I believe that leadership of the self – borne of the silent contemplation you have spoken of, is potent, though the time frame for an outcome may be different, and the effect, less measurable or tangible. You are leading on a different plane and there are many others like you out there. The kind of leadership that you dont miss until it is gone. This is a great kind of leadership. Most men in our society will not truly listen to others. But they will admire perseverance and personal commitment. I am working towards doing what you have done, and your words are of great benefit to me. Also, take heart in the virtue of perseverance. We are like an iron oxide – things of concrete Will wither – or we will. although I know I will not see an end to the blights of immoral financial systems etc, my oath is that I may make myself, a most excellent ancestor – thanks again for bringing some realty to my dreams.

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