The Importance and Complexity of Community

I deeply believe that people are the only critical resource needed by people. We ourselves, if we organise our talents, are sufficient to each other. What is more, we will either survive together or none of us will survive.

–Bill Mollison, from Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual


Community is paramount to permaculture. This is not a practice for isolationists because isolationists can’t change the world in a positive way, and ultimately that is the goal behind every garden, eco-home, and water catchment we build. In fact, the “culture” part of the permaculture term cannot be realised without a social group that shares values, traditions, and practices. In essence, those gardens, homes, and dams are all embodiments of that culture, and without people—that’s plural—to create, utilise, and share the fruits of these efforts, permaculture can’t exist.

While we may be attempting to individually take responsibility for ourselves (and, yes, that’s a wonderful thing to do), it is our collective effort that matters most. If we each live in our own sustainability bubbles, then we are doomed to repeat mistakes, to use more resources, to fear others, to limit our potential… and that’s not even getting into the basic psychology of person-to-person social interaction, something COVID quarantines have revealed as principal to a happy existence. For better or worse, we need each other.

Even so, community can be a difficult thing. It’s often wrought with rules and ruling classes. Conflict is inevitable. Belief systems become complex and spiritual: How many versions of Christianity/Islam/Judaism exist? How well historically do they all get along within the respective religions and outside of them? Designing sustainable homes, productive landscapes, and water catchment systems is a far easier undertaking than deciphering the mysteries of human interaction. Nevertheless, it’s every bit as important. After all, it is one of the three ethics of permaculture: People Care.



Bill Mollison’s Community


Bill Mollison could have simply disappeared, built a personal paradise, and bid the world goodbye, right? But, what good would that have done on the grander scale? Where would all—permaculturalists—be now if he hadn’t engaged? Despite the fact that he noted anger as his motivation and community, along with spirituality, as something he detested (see video), he undeniably created one. However upsetting political, monetary, and food systems may be, rarely have I met a permaculturalist primarily motivated by anger. Even more rare is one who has managed without the help of others.

While Bill may have shunned community when interviewed, he was referencing a very narrow definition of one, something more akin to an “intentional community”, which are often overrun with regulations and red tape. Without a doubt, he spent the better part of his life instituting a permaculture community across the world, and he was an enormous proponent of the teacher-student relationship, particularly of teachers making new teachers out of students. In a different interview (below), he and his prized student Geoff Lawton speak about this very thing.

Just as often, however, Bill and all of us in permaculture recognise the shortcomings of the mainstream global community. We belabour the horrors of mass agriculture, greed-driven economies, and misguided governmental policy, the sins—in a word—of the communities from which most of us come and many of us still exist. Even within communities bent on lofty goals of sustainability, riffs develop as to who has got it right, and pointed fingers often indicate who one believes has it wrong. That’s just coexistence. Like any design, it requires constant tinkering and never quite goes as planned.



Building A Community Of Our Own

My wife Emma and I first began attempting permaculture practices when were caretakers of a property in Panama. We were new to it all and excited about banana circles, water harvesting, no dig gardens, mulching like mad, perennial plants, and pizza ovens. The property owners amazingly gave us free range over half of the two acres, and in a little over six months, we developed an edible jungle on our half. We utilised and multiplied stuff already growing on the property—banana, plantain, papaya, mango, noni, water apples, avocado, cassava—and brought in stuff we could find for free elsewhere—cashew from the roadside, coconuts from neighbours, starfruit from a nearby friend, pigeon pea, moringa, sweet potato, cranberry hibiscus… In short, we had great fun and some success.

A big part of both of those things was that the owners also allowed us to run a volunteer program via WorkAway and HelpX. We wrote a very detailed description of what we were up to, and the response was overwhelming. We could only afford to feed a couple of volunteers at a time, so soon we were having to turn folks away. Nevertheless, we met a fantastically eclectic collection of people, our own community, most of which we introduced to permaculture. We had come to it the same way: volunteering on farms. Without them raking leaves, digging banana circles, moving rocks, turning compost, and so much more, the project would have never gotten as far. And, they liked being there, too, despite often being knee-deep in mud or elbow-deep in mangoes.

In the years following, we had similar experiences. We became brief members of similar communities in Colombia, Spain, Guatemala, Belize, and ultimately the United States. Some of these connections have carried on with us as distant friendships. I’ve been writing for Permaculture News since 2013 and view its readers and staff as a community, too. Without the give and take of these relationships, practicing permaculture would have been infinitely more difficult. It has meant and continues to mean a great deal to share it with others and to learn it from others. That’s community.



The Upcoming Challenge

Having chosen rural North Carolina as a home, Emma and I are often faced with a surrounding community at odds with our goals. We drive by huge fields of corn, soy, and tobacco anytime we go anywhere. The landscape is littered with chicken houses, Confederate flags, and Trump signs. Our neighbours use Round-Up and take pride in massive, closely shorn lawns. Big, gas-guzzling trucks are trendy, and my other part-time job (besides writing) is growing organic gardens (and doing yard work) at the summer homes of the elite one percent to whom all those controversial tax cuts are always given. It can feel a strange place to be.

But, being in a community is learning to navigate these differences when we must. It’s also recognising that even in this setting there are people with similar interests, and more importantly, there is an opportunity to perhaps influence (and learn from) those around us with different perspectives. While it’s wonderful to bond with people on the permaculture path, it might be as relevant to build bridges with those who aren’t. It’s a challenge that intimidates at times, one that smacks more of an eco-systemic community, complete with weeds, garden pests, and bogs as well as organic produce, healthy trees, and clean water.

We hope to eventually get back to hosting a couple of volunteers at a time, perhaps even offering internships and workshops. In the meantime, though, we are learning to make a community with those around us. We realise that, while we hope for a global future more in keeping with permaculture ethics and principles, guiding ideals as opposed to steadfast and pinpoint rules, a crucial part of such a future is cooperation, not competition. It is in such efforts that we may affect the broader change we hope to see. It is with our successes that we may interest people not yet engulfed in the revolution.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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