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!

The Death of Democracy: A Problem of Scale

washingtonBy Steven Saint Thomas

There’s a lot of talk about elections these days and the talk will continue until Nov. 8. From my observations, that’s what elections are – talk. I’d say voting is a convenient way for people to feel like they did something without actually taking any action. You vote with the hope that the president or other politician will go out and solve the world’s problems for you.

My own opinion is that democracy is not what you do on Election Day, it’s what you’re busy doing the other 364 days of the year. Government isn’t going to bring us the change we hope for – we will have to be the change!

Democracy in the United States has failed for a number of reasons, but one fundamental flaw rarely talked about is scale. Big Government has become another large, centralized system right up there with the other Biggies – Big Business, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Box. These large, centralized systems created the problems we now face and certainly aren’t the ones we should look to for solutions.

The vision of democracy held by the country’s founders was based on a United States with fewer than 4 million people in 11 states. The first Congress, convened on April 1, 1789, featured a House of Representatives with 59 members. Based on population, Massachusetts had a whopping eight members. Delaware had one. There were only 21 Senators.

There were no political parties then and George Washington won the presidential election unanimously in the Electoral College (he received 43,782 votes in the six states that held popular elections).

In 1789, the United States had the kind of scale that would allow people to dream about democracy. George Washington was undeniably a household name, the most popular man in America. Members of the Senate and House were likewise known to their constituents. Ballots had names that most voters would recognize.

But the scale of things changed quickly. By the end of the Civil War, roughly a century later, the population had reached 38.6 million. The House had 243 members, each representing about 159,000 people. In 1911, Congress set its own limit at 435 seats – each member representing about 212,000 of the country’s 92 million people.

The U.S. population has tripled since then, but the 435-seat limit remains. Currently, every House member represents at least 710,000 people.

I can’t say in what year it happened, but scale killed democracy. We went from a country where voters were familiar with the names on their ballots to one where most of the candidates were absolute strangers. People could no longer cast votes based on firsthand knowledge of candidate character and qualifications. They would cast votes based on secondhand information: the endorsements of political parties or other centralized groups.

Large newspapers and other mass communications brought the rise of mass marketing. Things got so big you had to rely on mass media to make decisions. Mass marketing requires money, and in 1971, Congress began regulating how money could be raised and spent in the pursuit of selling candidates to the American public.

Once money became the dominating factor in elections, democracy died. Access to the ballot and elected officials became limited to those with the money. I witnessed this firsthand during my summer as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. The word “constituent” took on a whole new meaning. The member of Congress for whom I worked regularly checked in with his constituents – the privileged few who donated faithfully to his campaign.

It didn’t matter how many letters he got from people back home in the district. Only correspondence that included a check really mattered in terms of policy decisions.

The kind of democracy guys like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued about by candlelight in the 1770s is long gone because of scale. The only place it really works is where you can run a campaign without money. Small solutions.

In a place like Manitou Springs, Colorado, for example, you can experience democracy. This town, just west of Colorado Springs, has about 5,000 residents. The city council has seven members. In the recent 2015 election, about 1,750 people voted. Permaculturist Nicole Nicoletta won the mayor’s race with 878 votes. (Click here to listen to an interview with Nicole and her colleague, Councilwoman Becky Elder.)

Unfortunately, mass marketing lures our eyes away from the small places where we could really have impact to the large systems that manipulate us and keep us spectators. I submit that the reason many Americans don’t vote is not apathy, but the growing sense that it won’t make a difference.

Democracy is dead as long as we keep talking about big elections and stop making the difference we seek right in our own homes and neighborhoods.