The notion of Right Livelihood is an interesting subject and surprisingly, sometimes controversial.
So, what do I do with my time and how do I make a living? I am a permaculture designer and teacher, and I sell plants, seeds, produce and poultry.
I would like to make my living entirely from these things; I would like all the money I make to come to me through ethical work. Bill Mollison’s "making good while doing good" seems like a good aim to me.
However, there are people who don’t understand this concept very well yet, so I hope what I write here will help to move the idea forward.
If I were to analyse myself as far as inputs in my life, I would see that beside food and shelter, I also need money. I need money to function within my first world life. I need money to repay the mortgage I have for my house. I need to pay the bills such as power, water and gas. I need to buy the food I don’t produce, and I need money for transport, namely owning a vehicle and putting petrol in it.
I am working as hard and fast as I can to make my life less dependant on things such as banks, utility suppliers, external food sources and transport, but these aims all require a certain amount of hard currency — money.
So, how can I get the required cash? It seems there are people who want to make some sort of exception for permaculture, that permaculture is some sort of ‘sacred cow’ when it comes to making money.
The first obvious job which receives a backlash is people who make money from teaching. Others would like these teachers to teach for free. Trust me, as a permaculture teacher, I would dearly love to teach permaculture for free, but I don’t know how to explain that to the bank.
And permaculture consultations — most people would like one for free. I would love to do them all for free, but how can I explain that to the utility suppliers who want me to pay money for my share of the utilities I use.
Which brings me to the other things I sell; seeds, plants, produce and poultry. They all require inputs from me — my time and money in the form of things I have to buy, like pots, potting mix ingredients, ‘mother’ plants or seeds, fertile eggs, chicken feed, etc. I have to spend money to make money — all along this path the purchasing decisions I make are based in permaculture ethics.
So, this brings me to the difficult situation I find myself in sometimes. There is a current propensity, in backyard food production circles (and many of these have a somewhat incomplete understanding of the scope of permaculture design complexities) to frown upon the use of hard currency. What has become popular at the moment is the notion of the vegetable ‘swap’. They are at community gardens, garden groups and permaculture groups. The hidden catch is that when they say swap they mean swap. There is a current idea that no money is supposed to change hands, and no money will change hands, and if you suggest that you might like to receive cash for your items, or pay cash for someone else’s, then you are out!
For me this means I can’t participate in right livelihood within the very circles I want to participate in. It is important for me to receive some cash for my goods, and let’s face it, I produce a lot and I rarely need to take home what other people are offering up as their items for swap. I have most of my needs already met.
I also came to the conclusion that there is another whole group of people who, like me, are being accidentally excluded — that is people with nothing to offer except cash. They are not allowed to buy things, therefore they don’t come to ‘swaps’ and they miss all manner of opportunities for socialising, interacting and learning.
To illustrate this further I will offer a few scenarios, all based in fact, but products and names have been changed to obscure identities.
Scenario 1 — Susan
Susan works as a nurse full time in a country town hospital. She loves permaculture, living ethically and eating fresh veggies. Susan has two children at boarding school, so she takes all the hospital overtime offered. Her husband works their farm, sheep and cropping and he breeds rare and heritage poultry for a hobby. Susan has almost no spare time for the garden — as much as she would love to grow lots, she just can’t. She wants to learn more about food growing so she joined the local community garden as an associate member so she can catch the occasional workshop, and how lucky for her, they have a produce ‘swap’ once a month. So, imagine her embarrassment when she turned up to her first ‘swap’ with cash in her pocket, hoping to take her friends ‘excess’ off their hands! No, sorry, swap only — you’re out of luck Susan. Sadly for the other participants at the ‘swap’ they all brought the same thing — bucket loads of spinach — by the end of the day they were taking each other’s spinach home to compare flavours. Susan would have given her cash eagerly to her friends for their spinach as she is currently on the ‘green smoothy’ detox diet.
Scenario 2 — John
John is a pensioner. He gets by on his pension for basics and grows as much food as he can. He heard about a ‘food swap’ run by a group in the next large town, and anticipated being able to take his spare produce and get a few dollars for it, which would cover the cost of his petrol over there. He lives on his own and is looking forward to meeting some like-minded people. It might open up a whole new social life for him. Sadly for John, he makes the trek to the group to find to his embarrassment it’s swap only. Anyway he goes with the flow, swapping what he can, finding that most of what people have to offer he already has at home, but politely takes everyone’s excess greens. He can always give them to his chickens. A steep learning curve for John and unfortunately he won’t be going back — without covering his petrol money he can’t justify the drive.
Scenario 3 — Helen
Helen has a very productive set-up, making preserves, jams and relishes, and growing lots of unusual vegetables. She heard about a ‘swap’ that has started up nearby so she turns up with boxes of her preserves and rare vegetables. Coming in the door she realizes it’s a ‘swap only’, and then feels very stressed as some of her things are quite expensive and she has had to pay a bit of money for the quality jars her preserves are in, not to mention the sugar and sundry ingredients. She takes it in her stride as a learning experience, and she receives some very ‘ordinary’ vegetables as swaps for her ‘interesting and unusual’ things and soon realizes this will be a once only thing. Joan from across the hall comes over and admires her most expensive item. Helen would have put $8 on it if she had been selling it, and she goes over to Joan’s table to see if she can find something for an approximate value of $8. Sadly even if she took everything Joan had, it still wouldn’t cover it, and she doesn’t want to empty the table — that would look rude. So, Helen makes a big mistake and says to Joan “you haven’t really got anything I want, but I am happy to take cash, it’s $8”. Uh-oh, what did you say Helen? Did you mention that dirty word money! Taken aback, Joan, the would-be buyer of the large jar of Morello cherries in syrup, mutters, “that’s not the spirit”. Realizing she has said the wrong thing, Helen tries to make light of it with “money is just the ultimate bargaining tool anyway”. Oops, Helen, that didn’t help. Joan is now quite irate, “Helen, if your intention was to come here today to sell things for money then you should just go away and find a market to sell things at!” Ok, Helen got the message loud and clear. She won’t be back. She won’t be going to the markets either. People who frequent the traditional markets are just looking for bargains — they want things cheap, are not interested in integrity — it’s not the right circle for her produce. Lesson learned.
Scenario 4 — Lynda
Lynda came along to the ‘swap’ for a look. She works full time, rents a flat, has plenty of money, and gazes in wonder at all the great produce people have and confides in another bystander, “I wish I was allowed to buy something!” Sorry Lynda, swap only!
For anyone who hasn’t worked it out yet, ‘swap only’ does not work. Swap only is like an exclusive club. For the people who participate in them regularly, I think they do so believing they are supporting a particular ideal — that money is bad. They lack the understanding that money is a tool to be used like any other, in an appropriate manner.
If money were to be applied in each of the scenarios above we would see some very different potential outcomes.
If Susan were allowed to buy things it would contribute greatly to her health and well being. Her friends would get some handy useful cash, and she might even get the chance to tell everyone about her husband’s rare chickens. She might even bring a few to sell one day. And, speaking of her husband, it wouldn’t take much to talk him into sowing a couple of acres of biologically produced wheat, which he could direct sell it to anyone interested. Maybe there could also be a meat club start up and everyone could order a side of prime lamb… I guess we will never know.
And John, petrol is getting dearer all the time…. I guess he will just stay home. The lady from the ‘swap’ phoned him to find out why he didn’t come the next month — he was too embarrassed to say he couldn’t afford the petrol so he lied and said he wasn’t well: “That’s such a shame John, you had a lot of really good produce, get well soon”.
If John had been able to sell his vegetables for cash, he could afford the petrol to travel to the garden. He would have struck up some new friendships, diverted his loneliness and had less time to drink as much and vegetate in front of the TV. He could have shared his long lifetime of vegetable gardening experiences, and he still remembers how they ‘got by’ in the depression, when times really were tough — all valuable, and lost, experiences.
And Helen, if she had been able to sell her preserves and jams, might have made more and developed a large enough following to afford to upgrade her home kitchen. That would have given a job to the local kitchen joinery and she might even have ordered some new appliances from the local distributor. And as for the interactions she would have had with others… we will never know.
Lynda would have bought all the produce she could, and gone back to work and told her friends, and they would have come the next time, and they would have told their friends… and everyone selling things for cash would start growing things specifically for orders. More land in the community would be put into right livelihood production. That would have to be a great thing… but we will never know.
How do we change this mentality when it has been a hard enough challenge creating the behaviour change to begin with? As I get to writing on this very subject I am being told that I am the one who doesn’t understand the system.
We need to start up groups that are openly called ‘swap and sell’ and leave no doubt that anyone can come and buy.
I am also totally aware that there are often local laws restricting ‘sales’. Come on, we are resourceful — we know all the ways around these things.
Mankind learned many millennia ago that straight bartering does not work. I remember learning as a young child a fable about a man who needed a pin but only had elephants to swap with.
We have had money — hard currency, cash, the tokens to enable fair trading — for thousands of years. I thought this was a lesson we had already learned. Why do we have to learn this one again?
I have a question for all those who insist on “swap only”: please tell me, what would you have me do to make a living?
The society we would need for us all to live ‘money free’ does not exist, and never will. I hope we can all face that reality and get on with the work that needs to be done.