It Takes a Village … Find Yours!


By Steven Saint Thomas

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is widely attributed to Africans but it reflects the experience of most humans around the world (and through the centuries) who have lived in villages.

The late permaculturist Toby Hemenway noted that cities, too, have been around for eons and have served people greatly in our needs for community, security and commerce. Hemenway wrote The Permaculture City in 2015 after having lived both in the off-grid countryside of southern Oregon and the city of Portland.

Now David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, has published his blueprint for the sustainable suburb, RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.

Holmgren writes that suburbs are potentially the best of both worlds, a “sweet spot” between rural and urban living.

I think he’s right. Visiting Holmgren at his 2-1/2 acre homestead in central Victoria changed my life. I caught a vision of what you might call “Permie Paradise” – a family producing most of their own food and sharing the surplus with friends and neighbors doing likewise in the small Australian town of Hepburn Springs.

Now, one big difference between Australia and America is scale – only 24 million Australians have to share their continent and resources.

Hepburn Springs (population around 1,000) is what we Yanks would call a “village.” It is not part of sprawling, back-to-back suburbs with which city-dwelling Americans are familiar.

So I think it is crucial for urban and suburban permaculturists to break our high-density regions into, well, villages. Whether these villages have 400 people or 1,000, the point is they are neighborhoods where people can focus their efforts on localizing their food system and economy.

In the Zone
If you only read one section of The Permaculture City, read Chapter 5, “Strategies for Gardening in Community.” Hemenway applies permaculture’s “zone analysis” to the question of local food systems.

Zones reflect the frequency of use, the amount of time and energy, spent in various parts of a property. Zones are usually depicted as concentric circles moving out like ripples in a pond.

Zone 0 is where you live – usually a house – and Zone 1 are the grounds immediately surrounding it. Zone 5 is farthest away and often left alone as “wilderness” in permaculture design.

Hemenway asks us to map our foodsheds. Zone 1 would be food that we grow in our own gardens. Zone 2 would be community gardens or neighbors within walking/cycling distance where you could obtain food.

Food you can buy from a farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) schemes falls into Zone 3. The next zone represents grocery stores or other retailers that sell locally produced food.

Finally, Zone 5 includes corporate chains and big-box retailers selling food from all over the world. Hemenway advises, “Get as much of your food as possible from zones 1 to 3. The leap into a nation- or planet-sized foodshed occurs at zones 4 and 5, with industrial-processed and out-of-season foods bought at retail stores.”

Most of us find our eyes glazing over! Our food systems are completely upside-down, with very little coming from the inner zones and most of it from global, corporate sources.

Holmgren’s new book doesn’t use the word “foodshed,” but makes the central argument about survival in the near future: “Suburban food production capacity is a key factor in the adaptation of cities to challenging futures.”

Village Shift

In the past 20 years, I have lived in San Diego (3.4 million people), Colorado Springs (500,000) and now Humboldt Bay (88,000). All these areas are dependent on large, centralized systems to provide water, energy, food and transportation infrastructure.

They all can be broken down into villages. We launched our first “Village Shift Project” in Colorado Springs in 2015. The first step was mapping all the elementary schools.

Elementary school attendance areas are roughly the same in population and have already been drawn by a school district – a locally controlled governmental entity that gives intense attention to demographics.

The average city map will have elementary schools identified. A map of the Colorado Springs region (El Paso County, Colorado) revealed about 125 schools – approximately 125 villages. We highlighted them and put the map on a large piece of poster board.

Next, we recruited “Local Food Ambassadors.” We brought the map to farmer’s markets, environmental events and community fairs. People passionate about local food, gardening and building community were invited to plot their locations on the map with colored dots. Soon we had about 100 people plotted.

The dots on the map only had numbers, but we kept track of all the names and email addresses. As the weeks progressed, clusters of dots began to form. Some parts of town had many Local Food Ambassadors (LFAs), others had few or none.

Our team connected the dots – we invited people in clusters to meet for potlucks and form Village Food Councils for their neighborhoods. Soon we had like-minded folks sharing food, conducting gardening classes and trying to integrate backyard produce into the local farmer’s market.

Find Your Village
We are in the Humboldt Bay region now, trying to bring Village Shift to the communities of Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Trinidad. This work includes helping edit the 2018 edition of the Local Food Guide, published by a small nonprofit called Locally Delicious.

A catalog of local food assets will help LFAs and other food leaders in assessing and improving the foodshed. No studies have been conducted to determine what percentage of the food on Humboldt tables is locally produced, but the potential is much greater than in Colorado Springs, where the list of farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs and locally made products barely fills two pages.

One great food asset in Humboldt is the North Coast Co-op, which boasts 13,000 members in the bay communities and operates two grocery stores (Eureka and Arcata). Almost every product made in the region can be found on the shelves and the stores even track local sales on the customer’s receipt.

We have proposed a “Co-op Neighbors” project, in which members would be invited to self-organize village groups. Like Village Food Councils, Co-op Neighbors would gather for potlucks, share cooking and gardening, even arrange carpooling to stores.

Our goal is to increase the access of local food in the inner zones. It’s all part of preparing for the impending impacts of climate change, food and energy shortages, and financial collapse.

“It’s incumbent on everyone to begin taking personal and household responsibility for reorganizing their lives to adapt,” writes Holmgren. “My proposals remain valid if you’re looking for better ways to live now, rather than working for a version of the future sold by corporations, media and political parties.”

Resist? Oppose? 3 Lessons from Gandhi

By Steven Saint Thomas

For the past month, the streets of my town and most of the posts in my social media feed have been awash with resisting President Donald Trump. Resist this executive order! Oppose that cabinet nominee! Sign this petition, go to that rally!

My liberal friends think the world is coming to an end – just like my conservative friends did in 2009 when Barack Obama became president and started signing executive orders.

In my view, the world as we know it is coming to an end like a big old bus headed for a cliff. The two corporate political parties have been locked in mortal combat over which one gets to drive the bus over the final brink.

All the talk of resistance and protest has got me re-reading my Mahatma Gandhi. His success in resisting – and eventually driving out – the British Raj with nonviolence is iconic and unparalleled. Five years after Gandhi declared that the British should “Quit India,” they packed up and left.

What would Gandhi do – about Donald Trump? I’m seeing three important lessons.

1. We must not tolerate our oppressors. Gandhi was unswerving in his criticism of the British Raj. A foreign power had come to impose its will and civilization on India. This power sought the destruction of India as it had been evolving for centuries. The aim of this domination was to enhance the economic position of Britain.

“The British people appear to be obsessed by the demon of commercial selfishness. The fault is not of men, but of the system,” Gandhi told Louis Fischer in The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. “The true remedy lies in England’s discarding modern civilization, which is ensouled by this spirit of selfishness and materialism.”

He went on to say Britain’s “modern civilization” had destroyed India’s “village system” and given rise to sorrowful cities like Calcutta and Bombay.

“The railways, machineries and the corresponding increase of indulgent habits are the true badges of slavery of the Indian people, as they are of Europeans,” he said.

Like India of the 1930s and 1940s, we face an oppressive system rooted in selfishness and materialism – let’s call it the Corporate Raj. It doesn’t seem like a foreign power, because it looks and acts American. It speaks English, calls itself Democratic and Republican and Christian.

All the same, it is a system bent on consuming natural resources and energy, aimed at enhancing the economic position of the wealthy. It is crippling the planet’s ability to sustain life as we know it.

In many ways, the Corporate Raj is a more brutal regime than the British Raj could ever imagine. It’s a Death Star! The system is fundamentally flawed and cannot be fixed by holding more elections or working for incremental reforms. I believe Gandhi would warn us not to tolerate such a system, even if makes us comfortable for now.

2. It is more important to build a new system than to resist the current one. When faced with a huge power dedicated to destroying his country, Gandhi developed a vision of Swaraj – Independence.

He was convinced that Complete Independence could only be won through nonviolence. Using violence to overthrow the British would make Indians just as bad as their oppressor. Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” to describe the “truth force” that would vanquish the enemy by turning him into a friend.

Satyagraha had two main components – Resistance and the Constructive Program. In essence, oppose what is bad and build what is good.

While Gandhi is most widely known for his use of Civil Disobedience to oppose British oppression, he gave top priority to the Constructive Program.

And make no mistake – holding up signs, attending rallies, calling elected officials and signing petitions are not acts of Civil Disobedience. They are all legally accepted activities of the status quo, better labeled “civil obedience.”

“The Constructive Program is the truthful and non-violent way of winning Poorna Swaraj,” Gandhi wrote in his 1941 pamphlet, Constructive Program: Its Meaning and Place. “Its wholesale fulfillment is Complete Independence, designed to build up the nation from the very bottom upward.”

Civil Disobedience –breaking unjust laws and accepting the legal consequences – is simply a tool to aid the Constructive Program, used only if the oppressive power tries to stop what you are building. Gandhi concluded: “Civil Disobedience without the Constructive Program will be like a paralyzed hand attempting to lift a spoon.”

I believe Gandhi would admonish us to be very busy building the kind of communities we want to live in regardless of who is driving the country towards the cliff. His vision of a “Free India” would be right at home in Chapter 14 of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, “The Strategies of an Alternative Global Nation.”

3. Imagine and work for a new “Free America.” Permaculture shares a vision of self-reliant communities building local food, water and energy systems. These are tools to re-create the village system that has been destroyed by the Corporate Raj.

A Free America would reject the commercial selfishness of modern civilization and move ahead to the past.

“We have long been accustomed to think that power comes only through legislative assemblies. I have regarded this belief as a grave error brought about by inertia or hypnotism,” Gandhi wrote. “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. The village would become a self-governing unit living its own life.”

Rather than centralizing power in a national government, Gandhi saw power spread to India’s 700,000 villages, with representatives moving up a very small ladder to a bare-bones federal assembly – not unlike the United States in its first decade, under the Articles of Confederation.

All village residents would participate in village governance and send one representative to a district assembly to deliberate on broader affairs. Districts would field one representative to a provincial assembly, which would then select a president to act as national chief executive.

Imagine all the time and energy spent wrangling in Washington, D.C. shifted to building local self-reliant communities! Imagine people meeting their basic needs at home rather than chasing after consumer goods from all over the planet!

I believe that if Gandhi lived today in Trump’s America, he would be walking the same road he did in 1941 – spinning his own thread, making his own salt, embracing his Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish neighbors – and saving his non-compliance for the time when the police or military tried to stop him.

I think that’s what he meant by “Be the Change.”