Permaculture is Confronting its Privilege

Rayna Fahey
20 min readDec 12, 2021

David Holmgren is an incredibly important thinker and his work has greatly influenced my outlook. I think the permaculture design system is one of the most important concepts of the last century and it informs my thinking and practice every single day. I have been a student of David’s and live in the same community as him. His wisdom and advice has been critical in the formative stages of our project at Windfall Commons and in my design consultancy business Ground Up Creative. I am very grateful for his generosity in sharing his deep knowledge. I believe the potential power of the permaculture design system to reframe not only our approach to landscape management but also the way we understand social, political, and economic systems is revolutionary. I use permaculture design theory every day.

Graphic showing the 12 permaculture principles in a circle with the 3 permaculture ethics in the centre.

However, I have long held deep concerns with the ways the design system has been used — or not used consistently — when it comes to social systems. As such, I have dedicated the last few years of my life towards working to build solidarity networks between food and activist networks and build resources around accessibility and ethical practice in order to broaden the impact of permaculture. As have many others, for quite some time now. In particular, the wider criticism of permaculture has focussed around problems of economic privilege — especially in regards to land ownership, sexism, ableism, and lack of acknowledgement of First Nations sovereignty, science and knowledge. For some examples of writing on the topic, see here, here, & here. For many people, permaculture has not been a safe space and have experienced harm from the way events are run, forums are managed, and knowledge is prioritised and commodified. I have experienced this harm myself. This background is important to keep in mind given recent events.

Recently, Melbourne has been the centre of a series of protests against the government’s Covid-19 response. These protests have been specifically targeted towards the state government. Their main objectives (on their website if you wish to look) call for an end to all restrictions, a Royal Commission, the resignation of Dan Andrews, and refunds for fines. There is no clear statement acknowledging the pandemic is real, and the only statement in support of any public health response is calling for the Swedish Model. If Australia had a comparative death rate, we would have over 20,000 deaths by following this approach compared to just over 2,000. Unlike other protest marches that have been held during this pandemic, there is no advice on their website or in their online communications about how to stay covid-safe at their rallies. This is consistent with other organisations, businesses, and individuals who don’t believe in the seriousness or even existence of Covid-19.

In November, David and his partner Su joined many others in attending these protests. They did so quite literally under a permaculture banner. Their presence at this demonstration has sent shockwaves across the permaculture community. For a timeline of events, please see Russ Grayson’s summary. Many people are upset that someone with such prominence in the community, alongside a clear scientific mind, would align with such a movement. I am one of those people. I am very concerned that someone with such a clear commitment to the power of community cooperation and commons thinking would be so opposed to public health responses in a pandemic. That they would instead choose to march with people calling for violence and the rapid destabilisation of our democracy is a signpost of how lacking society really is in deciphering the many forces at work undermining our freedoms.

One of the permaculture principles is “accept feedback and apply self regulation”. It’s one of the hardest ones, because as David has said himself, it is the one that deals with ego. For this reason, I believe it’s one of the most important ones. Yet despite many years of people, especially First Nations, migrant and disabled people, engaging in exhausting emotional labour to try and make permaculture an inclusive movement, David has not shown any real effort to do work in this space.This is evidenced by these same criticisms being made of his most recent publication. Others have worked very hard to make this movement inclusive — it’s their voices who should be platformed during this time. I pay particular respects to Rosemary Morrow as one of the elders of our community who has dedicated her life’s work to making a real difference in marginalised communities. I urge you to read her thoughtful words on the matter of vaccines.

This most recent article of David’s in defence of his actions is further evidence of his lack of understanding of the importance of community-led action for the greater, global good, as opposed to individual gain. Instead of starting by acknowledgement of his privilege — of which he has significant amounts in this context — he goes on a lengthy diatribe about himself and his activist history. Yet during all of these decades of activism he has clearly failed to learn the deeper lessons of intersectionality. If so, he would have at least acknowledged the concerns of any of the vulnerable communities most at risk from Covid-19 at least once in his writing on the topic. Surely a designer with a specialty in systems thinking would consider the needs of all parts of the system. But he has failed to do so here.

Cartoon illustration of some of the different forms of privilege and how they add up to give advantage. People are carrying balloons for each privilege they hold. Some have lots and are lifted up.
Cartoon by brilliant permaculture illustrator Brenna Quinlan

Permaculture design has so much to offer during this time. The community resilience I have seen and experienced during Covid-19 has been so inspiring and wonderful and clearly examples of permaculture in action. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the young permies organising to grow and distribute food amongst their communities has been wonderfully inspiring to see. The teams of people creating new distribution systems to safely get food straight from small-scale farmers to people’s homes has lifted so many. The establishment of mutual aid community support networks to help deliver support and resources to those isolating or immunocompromised has too. So many homemade masks! All of that action has been firmly rooted in a collective commitment to public health for our whole community, especially those who are most vulnerable. Permaculturalists have been instrumental in so much of this work. This is what we should be celebrating. But many people in our community feel like that work is now being undermined.

This protest movement has been hard to understand because its aims have been either confusing, irrelevant, misdirected, or all of the above. I also have been involved in social change activism for a really long time and as an anarchist I have natural leanings towards any critique of the state and the use of state power for coercive control. So I have made genuine attempts to find common ground with this movement but I have failed to see any real solutions offered other than “stop doing stuff, because it feels bad”. This approach will clearly do little to stop the spread of Covid-19 amongst our community. Covid-19 is real, incredibly harmful — especially for the most vulnerable members of our community (pdf), and needs a comprehensive public health response. Letting it rip is just not an option. Unless of course you don’t place value on the lives of the elderly, chronically ill and disabled people.

Importantly, I haven’t been able to get past the intensely inflammatory rhetoric around “tyranny” and “oppression”. We have very real examples of those forces in action in our country and our region and when I look to these same protest organisers for their opinions in that context, they are all of a sudden on a different side. You cannot stand for freedom for yourself and at the same time support increased incarceration of First Nations people and indefinite detention of refugees. The foundations of the anti lockdown movement do exactly that. They also regularly threaten violence towards anyone who disagrees with them. I will not stand with people who advocate violence and murder as a political tactic. Not ever.

Ironically the people marching for “Freedom” failed to take their protest anywhere near the Park Hotel in Melbourne where the government is actually indefinitely locking people up for being refugees fleeing persecution.

These protests began from the same groups fuelled by Breitbart and Alex Jones type news platforms actively espousing Qanon theories. These platforms have mastered the art of spreading vast amounts of misinformation about Covid-19 on every level. From conspiracy theories around vaccines to the very existence of Covid-19 to begin with. Many of them continue to do so, and are deliberately targeting vulnerable communities including First Nations communities, spreading fear and misinformation. Researching their movement and trying to get my head around the motivations behind it was a deeply fraught experience as I had to navigate past large amounts of toxic material that was ableist, exclusionary, and openly threatening to people who disagreed. I reported countless posts for directly threatening violence.

People are dying because of this misinformation. Reading the stories of ICU staff having to tell people on their deathbeds that it’s too late to get vaccinated now is heartbreaking. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it is for those people to do their jobs right now. I haven’t seen anything mentioned in David’s writing on this topic either.

There is certainly plenty of evidence that far-right, neo-nazi groups locally have used the pandemic and these protests as a tool to organise and mobilise. See here, here, and here for examples. It has been obvious for months. The neo-nazi movement has simmered along in this country for decades. But I have never seen them this bold, and given so much legitimacy by multiple public platforms including public, corporate and independent media, as well as at the protests themselves.

The roots of this movement ARE important, because the values behind it inform the types of solutions offered. You can plant a fruit tree in toxic soil and it may bear edible fruit. But it’ll probably make you sick.

See here’s the thing about privilege, you can easily talk about things in the abstract when the consequences don’t affect you. First Nations people, Muslims, BIPOC, and the LGBTQI+ community are the people who are likely to be the victims of white supremacist attacks in this country. Not some white guy in Hepburn Springs. By marching with violent extremists and not condemning their violence, David is complicit in their legitimacy. Legitimising racism only emboldens it. That can have catastrophic consequences, as the families of the 52 people who lost their lives in the Christchurch attack can attest.

When you don’t condemn racist beliefs and the use of violence, and instead choose to march with people who do, you condone them. Even if this group were to genuinely not know that’s what they were joining in on, their response to double down on their decision and still not disavow racism and white supremacy shows how little regard they have for solidarity with the targets of racial violence.

We are seeing violent threats and attacks now taking place against MPs and their families, journalists, activists, ordinary people just trying to do their job. This shit is not ok and we should be rallying together as a community to condemn this violence in no uncertain terms. People’s lives and safety should never be fodder for a political movement. Certainly not in a permaculture world.

David noted the absence of key progressive organisations from that march and came to the conclusion that they missed an opportunity to organise. It didn’t seem to occur to him that they weren’t there because they are actively condemning them. That’s right, actual experts in human rights law, workplace safety, and public health are condemning these protests for not only failing to call for action that will make any real difference to save people’s lives, but are actively dangerous to public health. The subsequent spread of infections throughout protest attendees was sadly foreseen. At last report, thirty-nine Covid-19 cases have been linked to last month’s protests, mostly in unvaccinated people. Three people have been hospitalised and one is in intensive care. I sincerely wish all of these people are able to recover.

Yes, there have been significant issues with the way the pandemic has been handled — but the vast majority of those have been at the federal level. The failure to act in a timely and effective manner has led to a significant impact on communities. We have seen a haphazard economic strategy which has been based on picking winners and losers, thus setting people up against each other.

There is one group of people who have done incredibly well out of this pandemic and that is landlords. The eye watering increases in Australian land prices alone (Up 1.72 TRILLION this year) should be enough for people to be calling on serious contributions from the property and banking sector. But there’s deafening silence on that front from this movement. Talk about profiteering out of a public health crisis!

Progressive organisations are working incredibly hard to advocate for a safe and equitable Covid-19 response. If you take the time to look, it is easy to find the evidence of this work. The fact our covid death rate is so low is due to this massive collective effort of masking up, vaxxing up and owning up to a disease that has so far killed over 5 million people.

Unions have been working hard to protect worker safety and workplace rights. Social justice organisations have worked to ensure those most vulnerable haven’t been left behind. Arts groups have tried valiantly to gather support for creative sectors.

Personally, I have been deeply grateful for the Victorian Farmers Market Association who gave everything they had to make sure our markets are considered essential services and kept open throughout. While a pandemic is an awful thing, there is still opportunity for positive change in crisis. The huge swing towards supporting and really valuing local, especially our local producers, has been wonderful to see.

So many people have worked so incredibly hard to help our community get through this together. They have all done so from a place of love and concern for their fellow community members. It has given me so much hope, because we’ve seen that when asked to make sacrifices for the greater good, the vast majority of people in our state will do just that.

David claims that the march was so much more diverse than just the far-right neo nazis. It’s true. I think that’s the real shame of it all. So let’s put the nazi issue to one side and talk political aims and tactics.

The main concerns I have heard from rational people about the current Covid-19 response measures have largely fallen into two categories: economic and social.

I’ll start with the economic. Our federal government abandoned this country. When we needed economic support to stay home without risking losing our livelihoods, businesses and homes, our federal government initially came to the party. But they were then quick to tell us that the price was too great to pay. We briefly saw welfare levels lifted to a level where some people were able to crawl out of poverty. Numbers of homeless people plummeted like the organisations that support them have never seen before. But they quickly shut that down too. Instead, the market-loving Liberal Party literally left it to the market to figure it out and if you weren’t allowed to go to work, you sank. Far too many people kept their livelihoods despite the federal government, not because of them. From an economic perspective we needed to be on a war-footing. If this was a war, they would have found the money.

There are many solutions to the economic situation, but for the purposes of brevity I will focus on one that has been strongly advocated for throughout this crisis: a Universal Basic Income. A UBI which tapers off depending on the income of the recipient has been costed at between $103 billion and $126 billion, depending on the level of payments. That sounds like a big number, sure. But let’s just hark back to that previous number of how much land values have gone up this year. If we taxed just 7.3% of this year’s land value increase alone, it would cover the cost. Now that’s a blunt calculation, and not how you’d actually use a land tax to cover a citizens dividend model. But you get my drift, the wealth is out there. Our federal government has just chosen not to use it in our time of greatest national need. I would argue that it’s easier for them to not risk the ire of their donors and instead focus on directing the anger of people towards the state governments, and in particular the Andrews government. There is no doubt that Morrison is a practised escape artist when it comes to shirking responsibility and with the willing and active support of the Murdoch press, it’s a pretty easy strategy to pull off.

Being forced between choosing your income and your health is a horrific position for a government to put people in, especially a government as wealthy as ours. That none of this anger is being directed their way is very telling towards the motivations behind the leadership of this movement.

The social costs have also been undoubtedly high. Extended family separations, social isolation, grieving without support, there are countless stories of people enduring incredible social hardships during this time. I’ve been comparatively lucky to be in a safe and well resourced position throughout and I even managed to (I’m still not sure how) luck a trip home to Aotearoa to see my family. Such an incredible gift that I am deeply grateful for. I know the pain of missing my family, it is an awful feeling. But nothing compared to the pain of not ever seeing them again. Despite a global pandemic, I don’t personally know a single person who has died and that is remarkable. It’s not a conspiracy of truth, it’s a testament to how hard so many people have worked to keep us alive.

So yes, the government could have done more to help people connected and socially engaged. State border closures for example could have been handled with a whole lot more compassion. And again, that came down to economic decisions because the resourcing simply wasn’t made available. But I can’t reconcile the rhetoric that the government has not cared, with the actual policy measures we have seen in place. The restrictions measures have changed constantly throughout this pandemic in response to the threat level. The state government has consistently reiterated that their concerns and motivations are about keeping people safe and ensuring the systems of support are best able to do their job. Of course some decisions could have been better. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and literally thousands of people have been making thousands of decisions every day, affecting our lives like never before. The vast majority of these decisions have been good ones, enacted on the best information to support widespread public objectives.

So what are the alternatives? Unfettered opening up means condemning vulnerable people to getting sick and dying or being forced to stay in their homes. Many already are and the chronic illness communities that I am connected with are full of stories of people being forced to feel unsafe when they leave their homes by other people refusing to obey restrictions, intentionally coughing on them, or abusing them for wearing masks. It is truly awful, and this movement is absolutely encouraging and emboldening that behaviour.

The reality is that the vast majority of policy measures that have been put in place have been successful. Comparable populations around the world have seen huge numbers of cases and deaths due to delaying their inevitable lockdowns. The problems people have experienced have largely been at nuanced levels of policy setting. Whilst I understand their frustrations, the fact that we have managed to keep our infection and death rates so low without subsequent massive rises in long-term unemployment rates (unemployment rates are now actually lower than pre-pandemic levels) is testament to the efficacy of our state’s approach. The anger and vitriol that has been targeted towards state politicians, officials, healthcare workers, or even workers in cafes is simply not proportional to the impact experienced. Certainly not in the context of freedom and tyranny; terms which have been thrown about with such abandon throughout.

So sure, protest the policy settings. But doing so within a movement that does not prioritise community safety and wellbeing will absolutely open you up to very valid criticism.

And then we get to vaccines. I’ll let my friend and comrade in farm tools Tammi Jonas articulate my thoughts on the decision to get vaccinated. But I want to focus on this myth that is being peddled that a permaculture lifestyle will somehow magically lead to an increased immunity where we don’t need vaccines. Of course we need to do a whole lot more to transition to a sustainable, healthy society. But the reality is that right now, we don’t live in that world. And even if we did, that doesn’t take away from the importance of vaccines in managing highly contagious diseases.

There are some within the wellness industry who are highly active within this protest movement that subscribe to the idea that diseases are a natural form of population control and by interfering with that process we are contributing to the overpopulation of this planet. Honestly, even writing that sentence made me feel ill and I am struggling to be polite now. That attitude is deeply rooted in Malthusian theory which is in itself deeply racist, and is based on the premise of controlling poor, brown people, rather than acknowledging that our species has a serious issue with resource distribution. This debate has a long history within the permaculture movement as the third principle of permaculture was renamed to be “Fair Share” after the original ethic, which I choose not to reproduce, was critiqued for it’s racist implications.

I get that people are opposed to vaccine mandates. In an ideal world, so am I. But the reality is that this pandemic has given rise to remarkable levels of misinformation and the ability for people to give informed consent has been radically undermined as a result. Add to that another level of federal level incompetence to get our country the supply we needed to being with led to further delays and more time for misinformation to spread.

The right for people to choose whether to get vaccinated or not also needs to be balanced against the right for vulnerable people to move safely around their community. If we apply a permaculture ethic of people care, surely the needs of vulnerable people who have more dependence on public systems e.g. healthcare, transport, and accessible food need to come first. We have mandated safety requirements across all sorts of employment and licensing systems. This is honestly no different. Yet apparently, now it’s fascism by stealth.

A pandemic is a truly horrifying public health crisis. We have experienced them as a species before and they have been catastrophic. This pandemic is of particular threat to First Nations people who already have appalling health outcomes due to the ongoing legacy of colonisation. Introduced diseases have had a devastating impact on their communities. Both David and I live on Jaara Country, home to the Dja Dja Wurrung people. Their first contact with the colonisers who came to their country was through the objects that came from the ships. These objects were an intriguing novelty and were rapidly shared around. Along with the intrigue, they also bore the smallpox virus. It is estimated that 75% of their population had died before the first white man, Major Mitchell, had even stepped foot on their country. The trauma from that epidemic is still carried by their people over 180 years later.

This pandemic has been a really challenging experience for First Nations communities as there is an entirely understandable high level of distrust towards the government when it comes to, well, everything. But as writer and activist Nayuka Gorrie so eloquently demonstrates in this piece (seriously, read it), an indigenous response to a threat of this nature means taking a ‘whole of community’ response. Despite the grotesque history of the exploitation of Indigenous and Black bodies in the name of medical research, the vaccine is a critical tool to keep their elders, babies and communities safe.

This week I visited the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for my last ever (hopefully) set of follow up scans. As with all of my visits to that hospital I saw many people who were clearly very unwell. The treatment options available now mean that for most people cancer isn’t a death sentence. But Covid-19 on top of cancer treatment most certainly can be. I’ve had many conversations with friends and family throughout this time who have cancer or other chronic health issues that have meant their ability to engage with society during this time has been severely limited. But every single one of them has told me their biggest fear is the selfishness of other people and the outright unpredictability of strangers in the street. There is a very real feeling that their experiences have become invisible during this pandemic and it’s honestly heartbreaking.

I haven’t seen David talk about any of these issues in relation to the pandemic. Where is the care? I’m honestly not really expecting much, as I have seen his writing about building an inclusive society:

“We experienced and benefited from the emergent culture of rights and recognition for women, minorities and the people of varied abilities, and many of us who fought to extend and deepen those rights have pride in what we did. However some of us are beginning to fear that in doing so we contributed to creating new demands, disabilities, and fractious subcultures of fear and angst unimagined in previous generations.”

I don’t know who this “we” and “us” is but it’s clearly not women, minorities and disabled people. Creating space for different people and then complaining that there is a subsequent shift in the cultural landscape is white male privilege at its finest.

No amount of planning could have adequately prepared us for this pandemic. The fact we are significantly more mobile and connected now has had major disadvantages and advantages. Lessons learned have been shared between countries and the ability to shut borders and lockdown quickly absolutely saved countless lives. I have nothing but respect for our public health workers who continue to work ridiculous hours doing their best to keep us safe. I know plenty of them and I know that they go to work every day, committed to doing whatever it takes to see us through this thing.

What the majority of us have held throughout is a determination to do what is best for the greater wellbeing of our community. For our children and elderly, for the sick and chronically ill. The power of collective action is what has got us through. It has been incredibly difficult and painful for many. I would never dispute that. But just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean we just stop doing it, it means we work together to make it better and easier. We do it without violence, name calling, and whilst recognising our privilege and power.

David claims permaculture offers great solutions for this crisis, yet once again, his solutions are focussed on individuals, and not the greater good. I am upset at his actions, not because I want to “cancel” him. I am upset because I have seen so many examples during this pandemic of communities coming together and working hand in hand with public health and I want to see our permaculture “leaders” calling for, and supporting this form of commons-based action. Many have been, and I wish they had greater platforms. I don’t believe what David is contributing to the debate is helping forward collective wellbeing at all. Instead he has deliberately pulled the name of permaculture into a politically fraught space for no other apparent reason other than individual selfishness and gain. It has caused significant distress to many working incredibly hard in this space and by giving further credibility to misinformation, will lead to further harm from this virus. I believe he should be held accountable for that.

bell hooks noted, “No insurgent intellectual, no dissenting critical voice in this society escapes the pressure to conform…we are all vulnerable. We can all be had, co-opted, bought. There is no special grace that rescues any of us. There is only a constant struggle.”

I truly hope David and those who marched with him really do take the time to sit deeper on this and think about the collective good and what precedents we are setting at this time on how we engage with each other. Framing a debate around acceptable losses is incredibly cruel and harmful. As someone living with disability and chronic illness, hearing my friends talk about my life as a dispensable one is deeply hurtful and leaves me feeling unsafe in my own community. Because like the commie protests of the 1960s, the community response needs to be about saving lives. The fact that over 85% of people in Victoria were vaccinated before the mandates came into force shows just how much will for collective action there is. That is the movement permaculture should be mobilising alongside. Because the next challenge — climate change — is going to take everything we’ve got.

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Rayna Fahey

writer, coach, radical crafter, organiser, mother, gardener, activist and lover. Thinking: groundupcreative.com.au Making: radicalcrossstitch.com