Robina McCurdy – Permaculture Educator & Practitioner, PiNZ council member

So many alternative thinking people have been ‘waiting’ and preparing for this moment of the dramatic collapse of an unsustainable 21st-century ‘civilisation’ as we have known it, to make way for a truly sustainable society based on Permaculture principles. Anyone who has stumbled across permaculture typically does a disorientating somersault to shake up their worldview and land back on their feet to walk in a different direction, unlikely to revert to retracing their imprinted steps on the treadmill. Fuelled by the zest to do their part in mid-wifing a ‘new paradigm’, after observing and interacting to understand the ‘lay of the land’, they then work on developing systems aimed to be resilient – to be unruffled when the old system collapses in tatters around them. There is a plethora of tried and tested models operating in every biome on the planet, as ‘the initiated’ have applied permaculture principles and its accompanying wholistic design methodology, with an emphasis on their particular passion.

These innovative examples (ranging from renewable energy to ecological building, water harvesting, agroforestry, sociocracy governance, complementary currencies, ecovillages and Transition Towns) offer the framework for a regenerative society. 


In David Homgren’s book Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability written in the year 2000, there’s a diagram that shows the place of Permaculture within societal collapse.

Although written from the perspective of energy descent due to peak oil and climate change, the outcome is similar to the catalyst of a pandemic. The more severely the ‘old crumbles, the more relevant and recognised permaculture systems become. COVID-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. However, we find ourselves right now amid David’s intellectually astute analysis of 4 scenarios: Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Stewards and Lifeboats.

Under ‘Brown Tech’ large-scale systems are imposed which endorse the big players e.g. supermarkets open/roadside stalls closed, chemists open/herbal apothecaries closed. So whilst decentralised models representing the other 3 approaches are ready to be emulated, within the Brown Tech regime, they are effectively quashed from getting widespread traction.Brown Techrepresents central government control with its policed restrictions, seemingly created and managed for the benefit of the whole.

Right now governments are primarily focused on ‘fighting the virus’ and when/if things ‘quieten down’, pick up the pieces of the economy lying in tatters on the ground, and try to refashion it, probably from the same unsustainable tenants as currently underpin capitalist system – unless they are courageous enough to embrace a regenerative approach, as the City of Amsterdam is doing by seriously considering adopting the Doughnut Economy.

As economist Charles Eisenstein asks in his recent brilliant entitled ‘The Coronation’: “What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of? “After so many have lost their jobs, are all of them, jobs the world most needs, or would our labour and creativity would be better applied elsewhere?” “We have been stuck in the systems and patterns that cause them. Now COVID-19 has gifted us a reset, let's take advantage of this pause, this break in normal, to turn onto a path of reunion, of holism, of the restoring of lost connections, of the repair of community and the rejoining of the web of life.” https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/

On the other hand, Charles also raises the question within a projected context of totalitarian control: “What among the things that are being taken away right now (some are not new to us) – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, hugs, handshakes, the automation of commerce, the transition from participation in sports and entertainment to remote viewing, in-person gatherings, the migration of life from the public to private spaces, the transition away from place-based schools toward online education, the decline of ‘brick-and-mortar’ stores, and the movement of human work and leisure onto screens – might we need to exert intentional political and personal will to restore?”

As/if the COVID-19 escalation ‘settles down’, I wonder what ‘top-down’ restoration of these previously commonplace human rights will occur, and what will become the ‘new normal’. Will our collective memory of what was, become erased in subservience to ongoing imposed authority with its sanctions and penalties. This is something to be very vigilant about. Even though in Aotearoa/NZ our government is relatively benign, we still remain locked into a complex global economic-industrial-military-trade system of signed and sealed agreements, requiring power and control to uphold them.

Regular reference to and application of every Permaculture ethic and principle is one way to stay on track with your own integrity. An idea: keep a reminder principles mini-checklist in your pocket – or would that be too subversive? - After all, this is the common-sense foundation our great grandparents and indigenous peoples lived by!

Charles significantly broadens the dialogue by making this statement: “If we can change so radically for COVID-19, we can do it for these other conditions too. Let us ask why we are we able to unify our collective will to stem this virus, but not to address other grave threats to humanity”. This is surely a question to linger on in the pondering, and any deep thinking will arrive at the ‘colonisation’ territory of power, superiority, privilege, exploitation, and global north/global south. A personal response can also lead to a sense of overwhelm and hopelessness in the face of these human situations which historically have aeons old deep root causes.

Charles’s research tells us that: “Last year, according to the FAO, five million children worldwide died of hunger. That is 200 times more people than have died so far from COVID-19, yet no government has declared a state of emergency or asked that we radically alter our way of life to save them. 

Nor do we see a comparable level of alarm and action around suicide – the mere tip of an iceberg of despair and depression – which kills over a million people a year globally and 50,000 in the USA. Or drug overdoses, which kill 70,000 in the USA, the autoimmunity epidemic, which affects 23.5 million to 50 million, or obesity, which afflicts well over 100 million. Why, for that matter, are we not in a frenzy about averting nuclear armageddon or ecological collapse, but, to the contrary, pursue choices that magnify those very dangers?”

He says that the difference is that “COVID-19 is a threat that we know how to meet. It is a convenient receptacle for our inchoate fears, a place to channel our growing sense of helplessness in the face of the changes overtaking the world. Unlike so many of our other fears, COVID-19 offers a plan. If there is one thing our civilization is good at, it is fighting an enemy”. 

Permaculture comes from a place of goodness and wholesomeness, whilst also requiring us to face destruction and death. We see the disturbance that happens in ecology as storms smash trees down and know through observing a plant cycle of seed through to seed is the mother plant dies. 

We are aware that by raising farm animals we support their life as well as needing to play a part in their death. In fully embracing permaculture we learn to confront death, whilst operating within a society where fear of death and ‘death denial’ is the dominant paradigm. In designing for optimal health of all ecosystems, we hold life as sacred, enabling the conditions for all to live well and right and fully. Regardless of what externally determined ‘Level 1 – 4’ restrictions and freedoms we are living under, now is the time more than ever to be empowered in Permaculture on a local level - from creating smart-design window box gardens to facilitating whole neighbourhood resilience. 

And as well, to strengthen that mycelium network of permaculture practitioners around the planet and draw from each other’s wisdom and experiences. After this lock-down fallow time ‘in the field’ facilitated by global tragedy, when the gates get opened and people are allowed out to play again, they may well be wanting to play new, meaningful games that offer take-home treasure gems for a genuinely secure future. So make sure you are prepared for this time by applying what permaculture knowledge you have now within the context you are able to. Practice some enduring aims well enough to become a competent game facilitator. Do what’s necessary now to cover the bases in your own life, to be ready to leap into action for when Regeneration Games are called onto the big field!! These are the times we’ve been waiting for…