Permaculture, Participatory Democracy, and the World Bank

Article for permaculture activist  Greg Gerritt April 2013


I do not consider myself a permaculturist or a permaculture activist, though I strongly support permaculture as part of the way forward on planet Earth, so I was honored to be asked to write an article for Permaculture Activist.   I have been an activist along the ecology/economy interface for more than 45 years, these days with a focus on ecological healing and economic justice as the path to prosperity on Planet Earth, so permaculture makes perfect sense to me, and when I lived in the woods, I practiced many of its components even if I did not call it that.  In the city I walk everywhere, grow a tiny garden, compost, plant trees (including nut trees) to reforest vacant lots, and advocate for environmental justice, but no where do I work the land enough to consider myself anything other than a homeowner and community member.


Where I may have more experience than most is in the fields of politics, democracy and participating in the democratic process in an effort to bring ecological and whole systems thinking to governance in my community.  My experiences with democracy and the community process are varied.  I helped found the Green Party of the United States, was the first Green Party candidate for state legislature in the US back in 1986, and ran for Mayor of Providence RI something over 10 years ago.  One year I talked 20 of the 24 people seeking the Green party nomination for President out of running because I was worried that something bad would happen to the potential candidates as the stress of actually running became more than their fragile lives could handle. But participatory democracy includes much more than simply running for office under the banner of your choosing.  And all of us need to practice it.


Is the factory down the street polluting?  Say something in public. Are the developers (what a weird name) trying to build schools on toxic waste dumps?
Go to the hearing.  Is your community recycling well?  Help get a grant that pays for recycling bins.  Can you swim in the river safely?  Call your Congresswoman and tell her to keep the Clean Water Act, one of the best laws (up there with the civil rights and voting acts) Congress ever passed. Do you know who signed the Clean Water and Clean Air acts?  The war criminal Richard Nixon. Can you build a community garden in the nearby park?   Are the streets safe to cross?  Are the corporate elite skipping out on taxes and then convincing their lap dogs at the legislature to vote for lower taxes on the rich?  The list is endless:  And so is what we have to do about it.


And in every case our participation is needed if we are to get good community outcomes.  Who else will advocate for more gardens for low income neighbors?  Who else can connect dirty air with sick kids in your neighborhood?  Can you lead the effort for more playgrounds, the labeling of GMO foods, chickens in the city?


Too many of us think that because we are living a low carbon life, growing our own food, and the state legislature is a den of thieves that we get a pass, that we get to sit out the public process.  Its time consuming, hard, inconvenient.  I can guarantee you that going up to the State House is one of the biggest wastes of time I ever have to put up with.  Sitting in neighborhood association meetings can be very boring.  The City Council is a very strange place and you wonder if they will ever do the right thing.  But still I go.  I have a long enough memory of all the bad things we stopped, of the good things we put into the city comprehensive plan, after we non violently beat up the mayor in public and organized all over the city, and made the city do a comprehensive plan before rewriting the zoning code.  And then made sure that more community gardens got into the plan.


As crazy as the world is these days, and as horrible as the World Bank has been over the  last 50 years, paving the way for corporate globalism, a recent report by the World Bank   Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development: An Evaluation of World Bank Group Experience, prepared by the Independent Evaluation Group, distributed internally on December 28, 2012 which supposedly was discussed at a meeting of the Committee on Development Effectiveness scheduled for February 2013.    In it the World Bank says quite plainly that the best outcome for the rural poor and the ecosystem occur when the communities of forest people retain control of the forest and its resources and can choose the community friendly ways to use them.  Then it points out how this can happen only under conditions of democracy, rule of law, and the respecting of human rights.  One statistic that jumped out in the report was that the one place they did the study, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, theWorld Bank found that timber concessions, often leading to complete forest destruction, generated about $160 million dollars a year, whereas forest communities could generate $2 billion dollars a year in food, building materials, and other products used in the community,. While watershed services (water storage, flood protection etc) are worth between $100 million and $1 billion a year.  One could almost say that in the forest, democracy, the respect for human rights, the allowance of local control, is the only thing that will help forest people continue their long standing permaculture.  And that forest people traditional permaculture is one of the few things standing between Earth and catastrophic climate change.


If the WB can say this, that democracy is one of the most important things standing between us and catastrophic climate change, that democracy and human rights is the only thing that can keep forest dwellers in control of the forest so they can help us, then it seems that we too in the “developed west” need to join in the participatory democratic process on the issues in our neighborhoods( a relative term that goes all the way from subwatershed  to galactic depending upon the project)  so that we can translate what permaculture and forest people can teach the entire community about the economy and development.   Maybe that is why my business card occupation reads Practice Focused on Community Prosperity on Planet Earth.



In recent years I have added a new tool to the tool box, conferences.  I continue to help candidates, I continue to show up at hearings, but I am finding that creating conferences (and running them at a profit) can really help move an agenda forward in the early stages.  I have particularly found this to be the case with compost.  Rhode Island is behind the curve in a variety of ways, some tractable, some much more difficult.  For the issues that are very knotty, it seems that the public forum I have created with the RI Compost Conference and Trade Shows have pushed the agenda and given some of the larger changes we need to see a public airing.  I am now trying the same thing, though not necessarily as an annual conference, with a conference on ecological healing, ecological economics, and economic justice.  My community is stuck in a rut.  Thrashing around for growth, whereas growth has disappeared from the old industrial west.


Think  about it.  Where is the growth in America.  Two places.  The rich are getting richer and natural resource extraction, usually the most damaging forms of high tech natural resource extraction.  In 2011 the richest 1% of the population received 121% of the income growth (leaving minus .4% on average for the other 99%) and the states with low unemployment are engaged in the drill baby drill economy with fracking and low return oil deposits the new anti planet drug of choice.  Are you willing to sit out the tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline fights?  Are you willing to sit out the fracking fight?


So if the pretend economy, the one that bailed out the banks and stuck the rest of us with the bill, the one that says the rich can do what they want even if it destroys the climate and communities.  The economic development establishment, the ones that create the rules by which the rich get to loot more and the planet dies faster in t e name of growth, can not even deliver prosperity any longer, the game is run out.  All they deliver is more and more frequent boons and busts that do harm to the many, reward the few, and use the resulting growth of inequality to drive planetary destruction.  It treats the rest of us like forest people to be displaced.   Participatory democracy is the only tool we have in the field of economic development that gives us even a slim chance that we can institute a steady state or actually shrinking economy in our communities that produces greater happiness and a better quality of life.


Often it is said that we can substitute community for more consumption.  That a vibrant life requires fewer things.  This is not the dominant paradigm in America.  While the signs of change are all around, we have not yet arrived on the path to health.



But we also need to learn how to talk about what we want in public better.  We have to really let the power of the vision shine through in ways Promising your community that their children will starve while freezing in the dark does not win you friends, nor does it get you elected.  Nor should it.  Community is not asceticism, life must be vibrant and joyous. So we have to participate in the life of the community, including all of the places the community comes together to conduct its business if permaculture and its allied practices are to prevail and this green and blue planet and the diversity of life upon it (including humans) will continue to thrive.


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