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Permaculture: a new dominant narrative?

By Cameron Leckie - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2012


Narratives define our society. Pick any significant issue and it is the narrative, rather than the 'facts,' which define it. Narratives have been part of the human experience for millennia and no doubt will continue to do so for millennia to come. They drive how we view the world, the way we live and the decisions that we make.

Narratives do not necessarily reflect reality. Rather they offer a version of reality which suits the group or groups of people that believe in the narrative (or want you to believe). Examples include religious or other groups which try to convince others that the end of the world is nigh but that the true believers will be saved and the cargo cults of the Pacific who believed that a combination of magic and religious rituals would result in more cargo/material goods arriving.

Narratives change over time. Change occurs as societies develop new understandings or differing groups within a society attempt to convince others of a particular narrative. Over time a dominant narrative tends to form. This does not happen by accident but is both perpetuated and strengthened through culture, media institutions, politicians and society at large.

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A dominant narrative is not necessarily a bad thing (it is difficult to imagine a society without a dominant narrative). Issues arise when the dominant narrative becomes so entrenched and so powerful that it prevents a society from responding appropriately to changing circumstances. At its worst this can lead to terrible outcomes as Hitler's Third Reich and the genocide in Rwanda demonstrate amongst numerous other examples.

The dominant narrative must be defended. If not it will be replaced by an alternative narrative. For those parts of society that benefit most from the dominant narrative of the day, maintaining control over it is critical in maintaining or increasing the benefits which they enjoy as a result of this control.

Significant elements of the current dominat narrative no longer align with the circumstances of our time. From an economic perspective the current dominant narrative suggests that economic growth can and will continue indefinitely. This virtually ubiquitous view is based on a combination of factors centring on the ability of the 'market,' human ingenuity and technology to solve humanity's problems, such as climate change, peak oil and resource depletion, as they arise. Unfortunately there is little evidence to support this view over the long term other than wishful thinking and bold assumptions dressed up with elaborate theories delivered by well spoken people in expensive suits.

Ultimately, reality will always trump a fantasy based dominant narrative. Despite this, those who benefit most from the existing dominant narrative will continue its defence long after it should have been discarded and replaced with something more appropriate. Unfortunately this is the situation we currently find ourselves in. The current dominant narrative is all but fantasy based but predictably those who control it; politicians, large corporations, mainstream media and technocratic central bankers are defending it vigorously.

A case in point is the widely respected economist Alan Kohler's recent opinion piece titled New-look oil rush shifting global markets where he boldly states, with dubious evidence to actually support his assertion, that "Now we have the death of peak oil." For a point by point evidence based demolition of this article see Matt Mushalik's critique. Needless to say, for a journalist of Alan Kohler's reputation, this article leaves a lot to be desired.

Now Kohler is far from the only journalist, commentator or politician in recent times to downplay peak oil, climate change or the dysfunctional state of our economic system with arguments of such dubious logic. What this indicates is that the leading proponents of our current economic system, those who are fighting to maintain the dominant narrative, are suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Essentially the narrative that growth can continue forever is crumbling and unconvincing articles such as Kohler's are a method of dealing with the dissonance that this causes.

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The phrase "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win" is commonly attributed to Ghandi. In a recent article, Kurt Cobb argued that the peak oil argument, and by extension, the limits to growth debate is in the third of these four phases. Over the next few years, as economic conditions continue to stagnate if not further deteriorate, oil production continues its seven year plateau (or commences its terminal decline) and weather patterns continue to change for the worse, an increasing number of people will at first question and then cease believing the current dominant narrative. At some point a critical mass of people will have abandoned the continuous economic growth based dominant narrative and it will be replaced.

What it will be replaced by is critical to the future of our society. In transitionary times as we are now in, a major risk is that the next dominant narrative will be one that exacerbates industrial society's current predicaments. David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture and the author of Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Stability, suggests that our beliefs and values (our current dominant narrative) that have developed with a rising energy base will be dysfunctional or even destructive in a world of declining energy availability. There are plenty of historical precedents, such as Germany in the inter war years, where stressed societies have let the dominant narrative move to extremes letting the worst of human nature lead the way.

Permaculture, the definition of which Holmgren suggests has changed over time from permanent (sustainable) agriculture to permanent (sustainable) culture, offers the potential for a new narrative, one that is an adaptive approach to industrial societies converging crises and explicitly acknowledges natures limits. Permaculture derived ethical principles (caring for the earth, caring for people and, setting limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus) provide a basis by which our culture can adapt itself to the changes that will eventually be forced upon us but in an empowering rather than authoritarian or dictatorial manner.

Of course permaculture is the antithesis of the current dominant narrative with its focus on small scale solutions, distributed local decision making and conservation rather than consumption of resources. For this reason it will get scant attention from those who control the current dominant narrative. But that is okay, because for those who do question the dominant narrative it provides an avenue of hope as well as a practical alternative to the status quo in the twilight years of the perpetual economic growth narrative.

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About the Author

Cameron Leckie has a Bachelor Science and a Graduate Diploma in Education. Employment experience includes a range of management positions both in Australia and overseas in the telecommunications industry. He is a member of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO Australia). Since finding out about peak oil in 2005, he has written extensively on the topic and in particular, its impact on the aviation industry.

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