By Alice Bulmer
This April New Zealand hosted the Australasian Permaculture Convergence for the first time. It was great to be there in Turangi, alongside more than 400 other permaculturists. The sun was shining (after a classic marae welcome in the pouring rain). And yet, I felt a sense of looming crisis, of impending disaster – environmental, political, economic. Most of the speakers addressed this. We do indeed live in challenging times, and one of the things I like so much about permaculture is that it gives us frameworks and tools for working with stormy weather (literal and metaphorical) – for paddling the waka without capsizing it; for navigating, rather than just clambering into a lifeboat and hoping for the best. Permaculture is realistic, but it’s also optimistic. On the very first afternoon, David Holmgren made this point, in his pre-recorded speech: With permaculture tools, we can do for good what corporations are doing for ill – understanding the crises and taking advantage of them. We can creatively use change, rather than just aiming to survive it.
I’m not denying reality, but I do find it stressful to think about impending global disasters. Hence, Nicole Foss’s unflinching gaze on the economic situation freaked me out. I had watched her on YouTube and read some of her writing, so I wasn’t completely unprepared. But after listening to Nicole’s keynote speech, I just wanted to go and hide in a cupboard. Luckily, I went to Inna Alex’s Deep Ecology workshop instead, which turned out to be exactly what I needed. I calmed down and rediscovered a sense of connection with myself, with the world and with the other people in the room. And my permie optimism returned. Later, people asked me to explain what Deep Ecology is about. Here’s my take on it: it’s about working with, rather than repressing or denying, the pain we feel about the terrible things going on in the world.
One speaker who had already faced disaster with presence and resourcefulness was Japanese permaculturist Toru Sakawa. He described, with calm dignity and a remarkable degree of good humour, his experiences following the recent tsunami andFukushimanuclear disaster in his home province. It was a presentation that brought up more strong emotions for me. I particularly loved Toru’s description of his philosophy: “I want to change with joy, not for fear.”
There were plenty of permaculture “names” I recognised from both sides of the Tasman.
Probably the biggest “name” from the United States was veteran permaculturist/ entrepreneur/ creative thinker/ whatever Albert Bates, who gave us plenty of food for thought with his lively talk on biochar as a solution (the solution?) for global warming, and a bunch of other sessions on eco-villages, entrepreneurship, etc.
Another keynote speaker I was interested to hear was Charles Eisenstein, whose writing I know from the internet. His video-conference talk about sacred economics and the gift economy was marred by internet connection problems, but despite this I found him very articulate in “real time”, even more so than in his written work, which tends towards the wordy. If we believe in permaculture, we must work to change the money system, he said cheerfully. “Permaculture can’t thrive in the money system we have today.”
Money was a very, very big theme at this Convergence. As well as Nicole Foss and Charles Eisenstein, there was a feast of Open Space presentations on alternative approaches to money and currency – often three at the same time slot. Probably most ofNew Zealand’s best-known local currency activists were represented, including Laurence Boomerts, Deirdre Kent, Bryan Innes and Helen Dew. The well-stocked bookshop was run by the Living Economies Trust.
At another plenary session, Susan Krumdieck, a mechanical engineering lecturer at Canterbury University, took us into a completely different headspace: she described her discipline, transition engineering, where engineering skills and technology interface with global environmental challenges. She described a project undertaken with Dunedin City Council, analysing the city’s resilience in a lower energy future. One initial challenge the team had to get round was that for the council, the very idea of using less oil was impossible – therefore they didn’t want to look at how to plan for it.
Meanwhile, outside the halls and classrooms of Te Kura o Hirangi, there was an irrepressible sense of fun bursting out. Turangi in April is a beautiful place, with vivid autumn colours and mountains on the horizon. Musicians were jamming in corners; kids were running in the sunshine; people were riding around on electric bikes. The Hirangi Marae very capably hosted more than 400 people, with warm hospitality and delicious meals. Much credit and gratitude to Jo Pearsall, Bryan Innes, Permaculture Aotearoa, and the many others whose hard work and determination made this amazing event possible. And thanks, Jo, for the great fiddling session in the bar on Saturday evening!