The Liberation of Toby Hemenway

Toby Hemenway
Toby Hemenway
Permaculturist and author Toby Hemenway passed away Dec. 20, 2016.

By Steven Saint Thomas

When Toby Hemenway gave the keynote speech at last September’s North American Permaculture Convergence, I must admit I was a bit perplexed. I found his talk, “Permaculture for Liberation,” a pedantic little history lesson on horticulture.

Horticulture? Why not plug his latest book, The Permaculture City? That’s the present – the future! Why give a relatively drab academic overview of how humans moved from hunting and gathering societies to agriculture?

Three months later, Toby died suddenly from pancreatic cancer. When I learned he had been fighting the disease for more than a year, I went back over my notes from the convergence.

It all became clear. Toby had been giving this history lesson for the past decade. Despite the professorial tone, it was his most urgent message ever: civilization as we know it is headed for collapse and permaculture might be our best hope for survival.

“We’ve trashed every ecosystem we’ve ever used agriculture on for the last 10,000 years,” he said to the hundreds of permies and Transitioners gathered from around the continent. “We need to try a horticultural society – and permaculture has a tremendous amount of tools.”

Horticulture? Toby traced three stages of evolution in the way humans have secured their food. We started out foraging, then learned how to tend crops – or garden – and then became farmers.

Farming meant plowing and planting. Agriculture meant clearing land – usually by fire – and turning ecosystems into large-scale mono-crops. It required a lot of energy.

Most significant, agriculture gave rise to government. Yes, hierarchical, centralized systems were invented to control our newfound surplus.

“Lots of things happen when you learn how to store grain,” Toby said. “First, you need technologies to store it. You need to protect it. You need systems to measure and distribute it, rules and punishment.”

Toby said the word “lord” means “keeper of the grain.” In fact, from Old English to modern, “lord” is a contraction of “loaf ward,” the “one who guards the loaves.”

Lords and kings took control of land – which had always been considered communal – then decided they could own it as well. Kingdoms and states invented taxes and found grains easy to count and tax.

People Toby called “aggrandizers” – those tempted to take more than their fair share – could be tolerated, controlled or eliminated in small foraging communities. In larger centralized governments, aggrandizers not only amassed real estate but dangerous levels of power.

“A small group of people have taken control of the commons and they’re selling it back to us at an extremely high price,” he said.

Somewhere between foraging and agriculture, however, humans discovered horticulture. Hunter-gatherers learned enough about plant varieties to become gardeners. These societies used tools and small-scale equipment to cultivate a mix of crops.

Ecosystems were enhanced, not destroyed. Humans did this for at least 10,000 years.

Horticulturists from what we now call the Middle East, China and South America didn’t need real estate, beasts of burden, slavery, machines, massive amounts of energy, states or rulers to feed their people.

Toby said that permaculture is a modern path forward to a horticultural past.

“As permaculture designers, couldn’t we design a community to perform all the functions of a state without having to have a state?” he asked that night at the Solar Living Institute in California. “Couldn’t we reinstall the idea of the Commons?”

Toby’s vision has become even more clear to me as our current state enters a new era with a new president who, if nothing else, is starkly honest about how little rulers care about commons.

Large, centralized governments cannot solve the problems we face in the 21st Century. We must pioneer a path forward to the past, liberating ourselves and our troubled ecosystems.

And Toby believed this work is absolutely urgent.

“We need to try a horticultural society,” Toby said in conclusion. “The Transition Town Movement is an example of how permaculture can be used to create a recipe of solutions.”

Thanks, Toby. Go in peace!

Migration By Design


By Steven Saint Thomas

There’s been a lot of talk about American progressives moving to Canada in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. It’s easy to feel on the edge of a society that won’t take climate change seriously, embraces militarism and promotes an economic-growth paradigm that is crippling the planet.

But is Canada really the best destination? Through a lens of sustainability, what look like the best places to live the next 25 years?

There’s a certain randomness to where we live, where we move and where we end up. The two main forces seem to be jobs and family. People leave family for jobs, people rejoin family for – family!

Where would we live if we could pick a place by design?

The ancestors of most Americans migrated here for better economic opportunity – in modern parlance, a job. Native Americans had lived here sustainably for at least 14,000 years.

African Americans also came for jobs, but it was obviously somebody else’s economic opportunity.

In today’s age of easy mobility, most of us look across the country for a good (or better) job and move there. It’s a pretty random process.

I was born in San Diego, for example, because of jobs. My grandparents picked up and left the Midwest in the 1950s to find the land of plenty in burgeoning California.

My wife and I both grew up in San Diego but we moved to Colorado because of a job in 1999. Trudy and I were looking for journalism jobs in our increasingly expensive and unsustainable hometown when my brother (family!) decided to move to Colorado. He persuaded us to look there.

We loaded up a U-Haul, drove to Colorado and leased a house big enough for our family of five, and my brother and his wife. Trudy and I hired on at the daily paper in Colorado Springs.

Random settlement
There was little rhyme or reason in selecting the house we leased in 1999. Like most people, we had a short timeframe in which to find something with enough space in our price range.

In one whirlwind weekend, we found something suitable – but our universe of inventory was whatever people happened to be advertising those two days.

Our lives could have been drastically different, for better or worse, based on the luck of the house-hunting draw.

When our lease was up, we looked for a more diverse neighborhood closer to work. We dabbled in what I call “migration by design” by looking at some 40 houses in the last few months of our lease, taking our time and doing our homework.

Even though we broadened our universe of choices by taking a few months to shop, we still only had a couple of land-selection criteria. The main one was financial: getting a good real estate deal. We found a reasonably priced house and a decent mortgage interest rate.

We lived in the house for 15 years. Then along came permaculture.

Permaculture is an integrated system of designing homes and communities that cooperate with nature. We learned the true essence of sustainability – self-reliant communities free from the globalized, fossil-fuel driven food system.

In 2013, we met permaculture co-founder David Holmgren and toured his 2-1/4 acre homestead in Hepburn Springs, Australia. The property he picked to develop some 25 years ago – Melliodora – was not just a random good real estate deal. Holmgren had first developed a list of criteria and then searched until he found a property that delivered on most of them.

When I looked at my house and my community, it was clear to me I wanted something more than just an affordable mortgage payment.

If I could live anywhere – if I didn’t have a job or family situation that forced me to live in Colorado Springs, where would I go? What kind of community would Trudy and I want? What kind of property would be ideal to settle on?

Our green dream
Holmgren’s land-selection criteria (documented in Melliodora: Hepburn Springs Permaculture Gardens) included both big-picture context and site-specific details. On a geographic level, he was looking for cool, moist climate as well as a community with cosmopolitan sensibilities and prospects for work.

On a micro level, his nine criteria included proximity to a town with schools and culture, a lot between .75 and 2.5 acres for subsistence permaculture gardening, good solar exposure and opportunities for independent water supplies.

What would be on your wish list?

1. Climate: Rainwater. I would want a place with plentiful rain. Colorado Springs gets about 14 inches a year. San Diego gets around 6. From our calculations, we decided the ideal place should get at least 30 inches a year. And no snow! We’d want conditions for year-round cultivation.

2. Scale: Village. We also would want a village. In Australia, we observed permaculturists in four settings: urban, suburban, village and bush (what we would call “countryside”). The cities and suburbs were too crowded for our tastes and tempting fate by having millions of people completely dependent on centralized water and food systems.

The bush, on the other hand, was too remote. It’s hard to develop an interactive, sharing community when you’re 20 miles from the nearest neighbor.

That leaves the village – a small town with less than 15,000 people getting the best of both worlds. There’s still connection to the grid (redundancy is a good thing) and enough people to forge a local economy with the possibility of affordable land.

3. Prospects for work. That means internet access for most of what we do now. Also work in local gardening, teaching, culinary or media would be good.

4. Beauty. Within 10 miles of the ocean would be preferred if the land were affordable!

5. Proximity to family. We have family tied to both San Diego and Colorado. Living in Australia, for example, would be out of the question. We’d like a village with train or bus connectivity to the nearest city.

6. Political will. Could we find a existing community already committed to authentic sustainability and a local economy? Why fight so hard in our middle age to change a place like Colorado Springs when we could join with people already on track?

So, based on these big-picture design criteria, we began a quest in Northern California. Even in a drought, 15 counties in Northern California get 30 inches or more rain. There are lots of small, progressive towns in those coastal counties – Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt.

Then I would toss in site-specific criteria:
1. Between 2-5 acres
2. Avoid the San Andreas fault and coastal tsunami zones
3. Biking distance to village center
4. Internet access
5. Ability to capture rainwater
6. Water redundancy from an existing well, spring or utility grid
7. Decent soil with trees for mulch material
8. Existing structure for housing or place for mobile (or tiny) home
9. Sun exposure for solar power
10. Neighbors (hopefully permies) active in barter or trade economy

Sound good? How would you modify the list for your own needs? Migration by design – guess it’s time to stop voting and start looking!