“PermOccupy – A Pathway to a Sustainable Future,” by Killian O’Brien. Interview on PermOccupy with Killian by Willi Paul. Presented by Planetshifter.com Magazine

Categories: Announcements, Discussion, Open Mic, Reflections

 “PermOccupy – A Pathway to a Sustainable Future,” by Killian O’Brien.

Interview on PermOccupy with Killian by Willi Paul.

Presented by Planetshifter.com Magazine



















Why PermOccupy? … “I should clarify. The name just popped into my head down in the Grand Circus Park the night this whole idea occurred to me. It’s just a simple, perhaps catchy way of getting across the idea of intentionally melding permaculture and Occupy to ramp up the transition to sustainability. It was later that the governance aspect occurred to me and it became something more than just getting everyone in Occupy to apply sustainable design to what we do. That kind of makes it somewhat conceptually different than Occupy as I understand it; Occupy has not explicitly stated it seeks to supplant current governance, only to reform. But I see no choice, as stated above. Am I suggesting Occupy change its name to PermOccupy? No. it’s a label for the conceptual framework, that’s all.” KOB

– from my interview with Killian that follows the thesis, which is also available as a Google doc and as a PDF attachment at the end of this post.

* * * * * * *

PermOccupy – A Pathway to a Sustainable Future
By Killian O’Brien, Director, Permaculture and Resilience Initiative – Detroit

“One cannot change an existing system; one must create a new system that makes the old system obsolete.”
– Buckminster Fuller.


The “model” is simple in the core concept: as the Occupy Movement grows, sustainability hitches a ride with it. Detroit, NY and Santa Rosa, CA, already have Sustainability Work Groups, all of which, to my knowledge, subscribe to permaculture.

The choices Occupy makes, if framed in terms of sustainable design, can profoundly influence the development of the next paradigm and bring awareness of the limits of our ecosystem services to, literally, billions. I can think of no other movement or process that might do this at this time. Others may follow, but source after source tells us the opportunity to reverse the damage to our ecosystem is slipping away, and this is framed in terms of less than a decade to do an about-face globally. The likelihood another global movement will rise and take hold and be more effective than Occupy would appear very small.

For this reason, I advocate each Occupy group, and Occupy as a movement, make a commitment to the Rights of Earth and Sustainable/Regenerative/Permaculture Design Principles in order to align our actions, practices, planning within the limits of the ecosystem.

The Occupy Movement and Permaculture as a Vehicle for Change

Permaculture (regenerative) Design has, for whatever reasons, only slowly gained acceptance as a toolbox for sustainability. The puzzle has always been how to spread the design principles. Permaculture Design Courses can only teach so many at what was hoped to be a rapid, increasingly exponential rate. Transition Towns have embraced permaculture as the core element of their process, but Transition has proven to have limited appeal after initial rapid growth. While Permaculture does include what is referred to as Invisible Structures (social, economic and political design), Transition does not have a specific element or intention with regard to governance.

What has been missing, perhaps, is a movement that embraces people in such a way that idiosyncrasies of the movement (e.g. while it is a false perception, or one primarily extant in the United States, permaculture is often thought to be a “hippy” or New Age movement rather than the scientifically-based design system it actually is) do not interfere with broad acceptance. Though permaculture as a design science and Transition, relying on permaculture, a sustainable community’s incubator are, in fact, pragmatic responses to our problems, until they can be seen as the non-ideological, practical structures they are, we need a way to move toward sustainable governance that carries sustainable design science along.

Occupy is a problem-solving movement with no assumption about which way to do things is *the* way to do things and explicitly embraces the broad spectrum, relying on the consensus process to work through the wide differences of the participants. Occupy, at least in rhetoric, does this in a way permaculture and Transition have yet to prove they can. Permaculture and Transition are obviously focused on the greater ills of society, and are responses to them, but they have not successfully framed their existences that way to the wider audience. There is an image problem, though it is a mis-perception, and Occupy successfully overcomes this by framing the discussion explicitly as fundamental rights issues, which may be a key insight.

The irony that a sustainably designed society inherently eliminates all the social ills Occupy is targeting, and solves them in much more pragmatic and simpler ways than Occupy does, is not lost on the writer, but Occupy has so far successfully moved the issue of governance by the people to center stage. There is a massive opportunity to meld the design science of permaculture, the community-based change of Transition Towns and the activism and governance possibilities of Occupy. This would inherently shift the foci of Occupy from, e.g. foreclosures to system-wide debt forgiveness as the perspective shifts from single elements (foreclosures) to full systems design (massive debt, interest, profit motive all require unending growth, which is inherently unsustainable) thus accelerating the work of those already involved in sustainable design by spreading it throughout the system at rate so far unseen.

This model rests utterly on the assumption Occupy can not only continue to grow, but will; that it can be made to adopt sustainability as the core of its work; that even one truly knowledgeable, skilled designer backed by a few people with some knowledge, skill and commitment in each group can be enough to initially steer Occupy towards viable solutioneering in the short term; and that a concerted, massive effort at education on the state of the ecology and sustainable design science is obviously needed over the near, medium and long terms.

Any one of these assumptions being incorrect likely invalidates the entire model.


+ Climate Change is Real and Rapid
* Window to Begin Significant Action < Five Years
— Arctic Sea Ice Canary in Coal Mine: Gone by 2017?
• Large effect on global Climate and Speed of Change
• Methane: Sea Bed Clathrates and Permafrost
• Momentum Takes Decades to Reverse
— Extremes Drive Change: Series of New Normals
• E.g., Present Course: Extreme Temps Severely Limit Crop Production by 63–82%
• Effects of one-time events lasting
• Punctuated Disequilibrium

+ Nature Bats Last: Ecosystem Services Limiting Factor
— Resources Limits are Real and Urgent
• Oil, Rare Earth Ores, Plutonium, Nickel…
• Exceeding Replacement Rate of Renewables: Water, Fish, Soil…
— Economics Subset of Ecosystem Services
* Economic Crisis Reflects:
— System Instabilities
— Resource limits, particularly in light crude oil
— Climatic Instabilities: greater damages, higher costs > Food System Instabilities
* The current economic system cannot be modified.
— The reliance on growth is absolute.
— The lack of shared abundance is inherent.

+ System is Non-Linear/Chaotic
* Bifurcations Now, Effects Later
— We Discount the Future

+ Ecological Collapse Possible 2C; Certain > 4C?

+ Economic Collapse Certain
* In Overshoot
* Growth Paradigm Ignores Limits to Ecosystem

* Simplify: Steady-state economics, Localization, Non-usurious banking; Jubilee
* Regenerative Design
— Built environment: Reuse, Recycle, Natural before technical, neighborhoods/small communities
— Natural Systems: Restore Ecosystems; Limit Use to Replacement/Recycle Rates
— Food System: Regenerative Farming, Localized Production, Small-holdings, Restore Soils
* CO2-Specific: Regenerative Farming (40% of emissions), Reforestation (100% of emissions), Localized, Regenerative Farming/Gardening (not calculated); Food Forests (not calculated; partial subset of Reforestation and Localized Food Production); Reduced Consumption (socio-economic, geo-political change).

The PermOccupy Model Elements

Please see the graphic of the PermOccupy Model

Horizontal Decision-Making

Sustainable systems require the cooperative involvement of the full community to avoid resource misallocation in a Tragedy of the Commons failure mode. Currently extant sustainable communities, primarily aboriginal, typically employ some form of horizontal decision-making process and serve as our model; a return to earlier wisdom, perhaps.

Delegation of Authority

Key to this model, supported by the principle of implementing small solutions after planning from patterns to details and the concept of the neighborhood/village being the core sociopolitical structure, is the delegation of authority from the smallest to largest sociopolitical units. All solutions are ultimately local and the local level is where the greatest intimacy of knowledge either does, or needs to, exist. Jared Diamond addresses this is in his work in being impressed by the vast local knowledge of the peoples he spent time with. He also, perhaps not startlingly, gauged the average IQ of the tribal peoples as being above that of the average person from “advanced” societies simply because the active exercise of their mental functions in meaningful, problem-solving conditions.
Consensus, too, seeks to validate all voices; the smallest unit must be given voice to encourage full engagement. To guard against the excesses of power, influence, money, etc., the smallest units must have a voice that gives them power equal to the traditionally more powerful interests.

Walkable Communities: Core Social-economic, Geo-political Unit

There is little debate these days about the need for walkable communities to increase efficient use of resources. They are much less energy intensive than spread out communities, overall, and can be created in both urban and rural areas. What is controversial is the Walkable Community as the primary sociopolitical unit of society. Aboriginal communities as an example, indicators of sustainability as the impetus, and Dunbar’s Number as justification all point to small communities as the best way to problem solve and manage local resources. Consensus merely emphasizes what the other concepts point to since it works best in small groups. By creating nested geo-socio-political systems as in the PermOccupy graphic above, we take advantage of the benefits of small systems while creating systems complex enough to manage the incredible complexity of the Earth system… including ourselves. Permaculture also calls for building systems in chunks rather than en toto. This allows time to analyze the success of the element(s) created and informs whether our planned next steps need refinement or were well-conceived, eliminating the waste of time and resources inherent in repairing or rebuilding needed when a design is implemented then fails.

Permaculture/Regenerative Design as a Tool for Change

You don’t do permaculture; you apply permaculture to what you do
– Larry Santoyo

To the uninitiated, it is impossible to do justice to permaculture in a paragraph. One might describe it, roughly, thus: It is bio-mimicry; it is the application of the patterns, structures, processes, connections and succession found in Nature applied to the creation of human habitats in such a way that they ultimately integrate seamlessly with Nature, enhance the natural productivity of the planet and creates systems that are sustainable over vast time frames.

Application of the principles of design, and this is surely socio-ecological engineering, will, if applied to solve social problems ethically and morally, lead the designer to sustainable solutions. The Three Ethics frame the application, and also allow us a way past ideologies and beliefs so that we may engage in solutioneering regardless of background. I have tried to capture this in the following verbiage:

Care of the Earth: One must determine their own reasons for seeking to design sustainable systems, but the principles are not inherently chained to ideology. It is enough to understand the planet is a series of nested systems, all interdependent and indivisible. The ecological services provided by the natural world are the basis of all human activities, thus require careful and thoughtful interaction. Whether provided by a benevolent God or the Chaotic Universe, they represent limits to what we can do on this planet. Those who hope for a long future for humankind have little choice but to learn to live within these limits.
Permaculture design principles, being pragmatic, science-based ecological engineering, provide a common means to create solutions that break down ideological barriers.

Care of People: Care of People is not an ideological stance, it is a requirement of a healthy biological system. The battle between competitive free market systems and systems with extensive social safety nets comes down to one point: a healthy system requires all parts to be healthy to function optimally. When any one part of a system functions below optimum levels, the entire system becomes vulnerable. If each individual is being productive, the waste byproducts (crime, violence, mental illness, etc.) of society will be reduced.

Share the Surplus: Abundance is waste if not productively used. Storing up supplies for lean times and emergencies is a good use of surplus, but uneaten food left to spoil is time and energy allowed to dissipate. These things become pollutants if not put to productive use. Over-abundance of food/resources leads to an abundance of population which overtakes ecosystem services, leading to a collapse of the population back to a level equal to the food available. What is first deemed to be abundance becomes a cause of crisis as excess flows through segments of the system, inevitably disrupting it. This is wholly independent of ideology. Using surplus to meet the goals of the first two ethics is sound system design.

Building a New System: Opting Out, Opting In

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
Albert A. Bartlett

PermOccupy must become about governance. The current paradigm cannot adapt to a regenerative future because of the inherent characteristics noted above – unending growth as a paradigm and design flaw. There also is not time to slowly modify the paradigm as the system is hitting tipping point after tipping point leading to cascading failures across all nested systems. Rather than fighting the current system, more of us, all of us, must start creating sustainable communities now. That simple choice begins addressing ever social ill and systemic problem we face. We build the new paradigm as the old one collapses from our disuse of it. Local sustainability removes the leverages the current paradigm/governments have over us by supplying our own basic needs. The malls, the cars, the full closets of clothes, the appliances, they are all excess energy bled from the system and are not needed, merely desired.

There is no area of the planet, no niche ecosystem, no society, no community, no economic activity not already affected by the imbalances and failures already occurring. The oceans are in deep trouble with fish stocks a fraction of what they were and entire fisheries have been depleted; potable water is an issue on every inhabited continent; social unrest is rising globally; food prices are rising inexorably, energy prices are rising inexorably, and supplies of the core energy source, oil, is falling; the climate is unstable and unpredictable already; species are disappearing at a rate an order of magnitude or two faster than any previous extinction except the dinosaurs, but that was caused my an asteroid impact.

Those familiar with the patterns of instabilities preceding collapses of systems – though many are undetectable and happen, seemingly, without warning – will recognize the fingerprint of the breakdown of non-linear systems. Think of a top wobbling and how it seems to go through phases of great stability, light wobbling, pronounced wobbling, wild gyrations, then full collapse. We’re likely at the fourth bifurcation now. Alarmingly, chaotic patterns are more difficult to detect than non-linear systems are, and, while a well-understood non-linear system’s collapse can be modeled, even predicted (a pile of sand collapses when the slope reaches a known angle, e.g.), we as yet have almost no ability to detect the wobbles in chaotic systems and have no ability at all to predict the order or timing of phase changes. What small degree to which we can detect wobbles in a chaotic system indicates that it’s already too late to avoid them at the point we can detect them.

Add to all of that, the time needed to build a society is not short. Two simple examples illustrate this:

• It takes up to 17 years for the car fleet in the US to cycle, thus, it will take at least that long to shift to electric cars (though electric cars are a red herring: they’re an unsustainable solution.)
• It can take decades to get a major project like Boston’s Big Dig from concept to completion.

On this basis alone it should be clear the solution is not building more, but simplifying, localizing, un-building. PermOccupy recognizes the need for the neighborhood to become the core of Occupy. Each neighborhood must become as self-reliant as possible, thus economically and politically semi-autonomous. This recognizes that the local populations are those best situated to know their environment and manage it. Their autonomy can only be preserved if economic and political power is delegated upward to the broader units of cities, bio-regions and continents. This will result in regional and national governments that have the least possible power rather than the current structure of having the greatest possible power.
Limits to Growth, updated in 2004, finds a world in overshoot – roughly 50% over. Joseph Tainter tells us increasingly complex solutions to the problems we have created with incredible degrees of complexity cannot be solved with increasing complexity.

The system reaches negative returns on increasing complexity and collapses. Jared Diamond tells us societies choose whether to collapse or not, and that there is typically an environmental component. The Hirsch Report for the US Government of 2005 stated altering *just* the energy system would need a 20 year lead time prior to peaking to prevent significant disruptions, 10 years to avoid massive disruptions and waiting till the energy crisis arrived would guarantee chaos. Despite very high energy and commodity prices, pushing us into and keeping us in an economic crisis that has no end in sight, energy production has remained flat since 2005.

Climate science gets worse with each new paper, with the most recent data indicating massive destabilization of Arctic sea bed clathrates across the shallow areas of the Arctic Ocean, particularly on the Siberian continental shelf, but even off the coast of Spitsbergen.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
– Albert Einstein

If the pursuit of growth based in usury, economic beliefs that do not consider the real world of resources, and a financial system divorced from physical reality, both environmentally and socially, got us here, how can it get us out? We turn to sustainable systems as our model. What do they look like?

– They manage resources carefully and over very long time frames.
– They manage population.
– They are largely cooperative and egalitarian.
– They are simple.
– Their wellness indexes are high; the populations are happy, contented.
– Work replaces jobs.
– They enhance the productivity of the environment.
– They adapt to place.
– They live in small groups, typically affiliated with a network of communities.
– They produce and use what they need.
– “Teaching” is contextual and displays trust and respect for the intellects of children.
– “Ownership” is typically based in a Commons concept, barter or gift economies.

None of this describes anything like what we have today. We have to choose simplification and the simplest way forward is to begin building the future and opting out of the past. As PermOccupy rises, the growth paradigm falls.

Permaculture is a response to solving social problems.

The Nexus of Occupy, Egalitarianism and Permaculture

“Though the problems we face are increasingly complex, the problems remain embarrassingly simple.”
– Bill Mollison

The First Principle of Permaculture is Observation: Protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.
– B. Mollison and D. Holmgren

The power inherent in coupling (Big Tent/All Voices/co-locate elements to maximize efficiency) these three elements lies in how they reinforce each other in their core principles. All three seek openness (transparency/everyone has input/collaborative/whole systems design), all three seek solutions for all (99%/consensus decision-making/Permaculture design always seeks to solve a social problem and considers all elements and sectors – including people – in the design process), and all three seek an equitable, if not sustainable, future (Fairness/what is best for all?/Care of the Earth, Care of People, Share the Surplus/Fair Share/Fair Trade).

The perceived weaknesses of each may be seen as being supported and strengthened by the others. Occupy is seen warily as just another passing fad and fights the perception that systemic, meaningful, and rapid change is impossible. Egalitarianism and permaculture are seen as too slow, with the former requiring time to make decisions because of the need to build consensus rather than achieve a majority or super majority. Permaculture states outright that good design begins with the first principle of regenerative design, observation: Protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor. What we should note is that thoughtfulness vs. thoughtlessness is a common element of traditions or cultures that are thought of as wise and that are also often sustainable. Consensus provides the mechanism for Occupy to effectively slow down to consider thoughtfully the future while keeping the pressure on for change, while permaculture provides the method to design that future.

Many aboriginal cultures engage in very careful, sometimes very drawn out discussion of important issues. Benjamin Franklin wrote of First Peoples that there were often misunderstandings with Europeans that arose from the simple fact that the First Peoples were thoughtful and deliberative. Some considered it rude to respond quickly to a suggestion or offer because it indicated the matter had not been carefully considered.

Indeed, many of the ills of the current era are a direct result of taking actions that are ultimately harmful, pushed forward by claiming that slow change is dangerous and unnecessary. The many toxins so pervasive in our society are there because we thought them safe and had a false sense of security in using them. Rachel Carson pointed out long ago the dangers of this and we have the illnesses and birth defects to prove her right. The climate issue is a direct result of our use of fossil fuels which we have deemed such a boon. They have brought us to the point of self-extinction, or what I call sui-genocide.

That consensus, permaculture and extant egalitarian societies all encourage slow, thoughtful deliberation and decision-making over thoughtless action indicates a Truth is present in each of these that is worthy of our attention.

“Stupidity is the attempt to iron out all differences, and the failure to use them or value them effectively.”
– Bill Mollison

All three of our elements have as a goal the celebration of differences, the richness of diversity, the need for inclusive solutions.


The Road to Mordor

This is straightforward, is it not? We do not arrest emissions, we do not simplify our invisible systems, we continue to consume non-renewable resources and over-consume renewable resources, and the planet’s ability to support us and all other biota declines, probably more rapidly than it has been (because that is what a collapsing system does) – which is the fastest in the history of the planet except for meteor/asteroid impacts.

The failure to choose to simplify will lead to wars over resources as the population rises to between 9 and 12 billion – even as we can actually feed that many, and do so with healthy diets, not subsistence diets. Even without wars, the rising tide of disasters brought on by extreme weather events driven by Climate Change will drain funds, resources, energy, talent and creativity just to tread water as a global society, let alone prosper.

As the temperature rises, even more so if the methane releases continue to accelerate, the extremes will become worse, and long before we reach 2C or 3C, the extreme events of all kinds will destabilize society. The death rate will climb. And there is no guarantee the climate will stabilize at a level where the biota of the planet can reform into a survivable ecology for humanity. This is an existential threat.

Need I say more? No; this essay is not intended to convince those who doubt the limits of our planet.

The Road to Hobbiton

This is less straightforward. Where we are is clear: we are degrading the environment so quickly it is becoming obvious to even casual observers. Oil prices have been extremely high for seven years now while production has vacillated by no more than a million or so barrels a day. Renewable energy is rising, but is still a fraction of global energy use. Worse, the plans for the future include meeting the current level of energy use from renewable sources, all while rare earth ores are already seen as in limited supply. Where will all those high quality magnets for windmills, electric motors, and such come from? And for how many generations? Wealth is concentrating at levels seen in the most decrepit ancient societies. Debt has been the mirage that has allowed the greatest energy consumers to pretend they are advancing instead of falling into a tiger trap. And despite decades of warning on every possible front – from Hubble, Admiral Rickover, Rachel Carson, James E. Carter, The Club of Rome, Catton, Diamond, and so many others, we are at present making it worse each year.

The canary has already died. The solutions remain embarrassingly simple; the devil is in the details.

I addressed a set of assumptions already and have stated principles of sustainable design are the key to creating a sustainable future. The elements of the model have been stated. There are a few details to address, however. How does this really happen?

Much of that can be assumed from what has already been covered, so let me speak simply, thus, hopefully, clearly. One key to all of this will be we take to heart standing together is the only way to avoid falling alone. The idea of Occupy as a Big Tent, a group committed to decision-making to solve the ills of society, is key. The commitment to dialogue and to people over organizations of any kind must prevail in order for invisible systems to arise that will stand against attacks of all kinds, including force, that will come from the power structures. It is only in sheer numbers and pure commitment to standing together that we will be able to withstand the power of the embedded structures. This commitment to the whole is what will make opting into the future paradigm and out of the past paradigm possible. We can literally build the new paradigm as the old one falls, and from its detritus.

A second key will be the commitment to sustainable design. The decisions we make in the next five to ten years determine our future. We have that long to commit to the Earth. Every community, organization, invisible structure must understand the need for this commitment then slowly build the knowledge and skills to make it so.

A third key will be to use those things we already know work to begin to stabilize the ecology of the planet: reforestation (Hansen, et al.), regenerative farming (Rodale Institute) and reduced consumption. That last includes the obvious: localization, small resilient and efficient communities, keeping the internet alive, at least as a backbone with community nodes so we can 1. track our sustainability and 2. continue to share knowledge, information and cultures.

A fourth will be to simply reduce consumption. The “developed” nations will have to lower consumption and some of the “undeveloped” will need to be given the opportunity to rise some. But both must look to the aboriginal societies as the only models of sustainable societies we have. We must learn again that we are the best way to spend our time. Meaningful connections must overcome the distractions of technology and pleasure for the mere sake of pleasure, for example, where those things are not based in healthy use of our resources.

We are not talking about going back to medieval times, though we may well go back to that level of consumption. The blessing of technological development does provide is that if well-used, intelligently applied and fully shared rather than hoarded, it provides leverage with which to both build the new paradigm before the embedded energy crumbles (machines wear out and eventually many will not be replaceable), and enhance the benefits of the ecosystem services the planet can provide. Technology is a multiplier, but cannot be the end game.

A possible path:

– Occupy grows
– Commitment to Earth grows with it
– Sustainability Work Groups are established and act as the primary work group advising, guiding and providing resources to all other work groups in achieving their work
– Neighborhood General Assemblies are incubated everywhere
– Local resilience, efficiency and self-reliance rises
– People are simultaneously opting out of the old paradigm by doing the above
– Governance shifts to egalitarian structures with neighborhoods at the core/co-equal.
– People stand together as forces rise in defense of the current paradigm, maintaining the commitment to non-violence
– As governance shifts, it is first manifested in opposition to decisions by the current power structure in the form of mass demonstrations, strikes and the aforementioned opting out, which starves the old paradigm
– Steady-state economics begin to take hold: Bartering, The Commons, Gift Economies rise, fractional banking and most financial systems collapse..
– Webs of sustainability develop, ultimately leading to semi-sustainable systems slowing and reversing climate change
– Full sustainability achieved over the period of a century or more

All solutions being local, the devil will be in the details.

What Would PermOccupy Look Like?

The General Assembly addresses the issue of vacant homes. The city has ordered all vacant homes be razed, but some “vacant” homes are actually being squatted in and all of them contain resources that could be recycled or reused or repurposed. The GA decides to work with the city to deal with the blight but with the direction of the neighborhood. The city balks and sends in big equipment. A call goes out to the city: help us defend our resources from the city government! Thousands show up. The machines are stopped. The issue is renegotiated and a precedent established: The neighborhood rules those resources common only to the neighborhood.

* * * * * * *

Interview with Killian by Willi

Why PermOccupy? Is this different or in addition to the Occupy movement?

No. I should clarify. The name just popped into my head down in the Grand Circus Park the night this whole idea occurred to me. It’s just a simple, perhaps catchy way of getting across the idea of intentionally melding permaculture and Occupy to ramp up the transition to sustainability. It was later that the governance aspect occurred to me and it became something more than just getting everyone in Occupy to apply sustainable design to what we do. That kind of makes it somewhat conceptually different than Occupy as I understand it; Occupy has not explicitly stated it seeks to supplant current governance, only to reform. But I see no choice, as stated above. Am I suggesting Occupy change its name to PermOccupy? No. it’s a label for the conceptual framework, that’s all.

Many people have expressed anger and resentment to the Occupy Oakland movement for a variety of ills, including damage to public buildings and parks and loss of economic activity. Will it be hard to build PermOccupy as you reach-out to change the current paradigm?

It will be hard to change the current paradigm regardless of what we do, so in that sense the question is irrelevant. Also, Oakland is not Occupy, it’s one localized version of it. In one permacultural aspect, this is as it should be: adapt in place. This means each “location” must be designed and managed as a unique entity, because it is. No two places are exactly alike, so no two solutions can be. In fact, the exact same solution in two different locations is a strong indicator that at least one of the two designs is sub-optimal for the space.

Also, the idea is that Occupy really is a 99% thing. As the movement grows and those people who complain now become part of it, changing it by doing so, their concerns will drive change within Occupy Oakland to better reflect the full 99% of Oakland residents.
Still, in the short-term, is there an image issue with OO? Maybe, but is it actually a bad image? It depends on whether the populace there understands the importance of, and absolute need for – handed down from the founders of this nation – the right of the people to claim public space for address of grievances. You cannot have a functioning democracy without this. There is an aspect of educating the public at large that is happening and must continue.

To the extent the actions of OO, or a subset thereof, are not in line with those of the larger movement – non-violence, e.g. – then Occupy must develop the ability to hold itself accountable and build consistency within the movement. It is a fledgling movement, and here in Detroit there is virtually nothing about it that consistently perfectly reflects the principles of Occupy. This will take time and massively hard work, work Occupy Detroit has so far been unwilling to do. If that remains the case, and if it is reflective of the wider movement, then Occupy is a dead end. It must grow up quickly. Very quickly.

Are you saying that the PermOccupy movement is the last chance humans will have to save the Earth?

Essentially, yes. Transition Towns should have held the place Occupy does for the moment, but Transition eschewed the hard view of short time frames and dire potential consequences in favor of a, for lack of a better term, more “power of positive thinking”-esque approach to our problems. Conversations in 2010, I believe, between Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg helped to bridge the gap between hard-core realists and hard-core optimists, bringing more balance. Importantly, presentations and conversations with Nicole Foss of The Automatic Earth helped bring home the seriousness of potential changes. But, even if Transition Towns is now more balanced, its growth has slowed, its cache diminished. This is also due to a very real insistence of spiritual and/or New Age-ish elements. This turns the more practically-minded away, of course. A greater problem, ultimately, is that TT’s has never sought a role in governance, though it does seek to work with government. But the current governance model is inherently unsustainable, so whatever is going to challenge it must either catalyze a startlingly pervasive and massive transformation within government, or become the new governance.

So, if not TT, then what? There comes Occupy with no ideology or overall insistence on any belief system whatsoever. This allows great flexibility to the movement and individuals within it. There’s no party line or required manner, style or belief system. It is, if and when fully and faithfully executed, utterly pragmatic problem solving joined with activism. This is what Permaculture has always intended to promote, so the fit is excellent: Non-ideologically-based activism with non-ideologically-based design.
We are already at 2012. The Arctic could melt out in summer as early as this year, and quite likely within the next four years. Do we have time to birth and build yet another movement? I don’t think so. More and more scientists are echoing the need for change within the next 5 – 10 years.

Do you think that people understand what an ecosystem is?

It doesn’t matter. We have the flexibility of discussing change in any context we wish because it is practical and pragmatic, not ideological or values-based. Talk trees to tree huggers, survival to survivalists and cooperation and stability to right wingers, e.g. And, most movements are actually participated in by a minority of people who create a critical mass of awareness by their actions. Even after awareness is raised, most people aren’t really active in the day-to-day creation of change, they simply buy into it and carry on with their daily lives. But, yes, the implication is that we really need as many people as possible to understand that the ecology *is* our lives, so much education is needed, and quickly. But for most, the initial buy-in won’t be rain forests and tree frogs, it will be I need to eat and food is getting very expensive; time to grow my own.

Are you advocating for a spiritual component for PermOccupy?

Not at all. It would be a mistake. It’s hard for me to understand how others can fail to understand that spirituality is something that humanity will never agree on. We will always have racists, but we can design out racism, We will always have the greedy, but we can design out the ability to become grossly wealthy. We cannot design for spirituality. It must remain a personal issue which individuals and groups are encouraged to pursue if it gives them what they need to build sustainable lives, but any attempt to codify or insist on this is will always be inherently divisive, imo.
This is an example of the power of the Big Tent mentality and of consensus. They give us the tools to step away from ideologies, beliefs and values – things we will never get 9 billion to agree on – and step into nearly pure solutioneering. This is the key strength of Occupy: pragmatic problem solving.

Can you elaborate on what you call the “fundamental rights” of the PermOccupy movement?

It’s not the fundamental rights of PermOccupy, they’re the fundamental rights of people. The early discussions around our Constitution, and a document from 1774, invoked Natural Law: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness. Any rights required to maintain these are basic rights. One of those is the ability, right and *responsibility* to redress grievances. By simple logic, this can only be achieved if you can get the attention of the powers that be. The power of the government is balanced by the power of protest. The most important and fundamental thing Occupy can, and must, do, is claim the right to use our public spaces – OUR – to redress grievances, and disrupt if the government is non-responsive, abusive, or fails to address our grievances adequately.

Tell us more about the so-called “image problem” in the Transition Movement.

I think I addressed this above. Basically, it had the “woo-woo” spirituality factor and was, much like Occupy, far too white. Those haven’t really changed. For whatever reasons, it has failed to catch on much with people of color. Occupy has the same problem. This is part of the reason, beyond the practical issues of governance and sustainability needing to be localized to be effective, that the core of Occupy must move from being city-based to neighborhood-based. Neighborhood groups can create their own flavor of occupy, TT’s or sustainability, and should, so we *should* be able to overcome this if we can encourage neighborhoods to take the power into their own hands.

“There is a massive opportunity to meld the design science of permaculture, the community-based change of Transition Towns and the activism and governance possibilities of Occupy. This would inherently shift the foci of Occupy from, e.g. foreclosures to system-wide debt forgiveness as the perspective shifts from single elements (foreclosures) to full systems design (massive debt, interest, profit motive all require unending growth, which is inherently unsustainable) thus accelerating the work of those already involved in sustainable design by spreading it throughout the system at a rate so far unseen.”

Can you offer any present day examples of this shift?

Well, sustainability advocates, whatever their ilk or stripe, are the persons currently driving this. If you don’t get the need for sustainability, and that it is not optional, then you won’t want to make this shift. You will do so for more prosaic reasons, noted above. TT is a good example. But, really, no. Most of what we see is not Deep Ecology, but greenwashing. It is something we need but do not yet have.

It could be that the 1% will be able to horde resources until the entire planet falls into chaos. How would PermOccupy prevent this scenario from occurring?

Sometimes the answers are, as Mollison says, embarrassingly simple: the 99%. Period. The power of a massive majority of the people to topple governments and hold accountable those who would be destroyers of people, communities, nations and worlds, is manifest. Once the people decide it, the powers that be are living on borrowed time. In terms of education, we must make them realize their long-term future is as in doubt as ours is. There are limits to what they can survive given the damage will last tens of thousands of years in the worst case scenario. We also have to demonstrate fulfilling lives, as demonstrated by the Human Development Index, can be had for much less energy than wealthy individuals and wealthy nations now use.

You write that horizontal decision-making could return us to an earlier wisdom. Please explain.

This is also simple: many First Peoples use forms of horizontal decision-making, and have survived in their habitats for, thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years. If that’s not sustainability, what is? Permaculture takes the patterns and principles of design found in natural systems and First Nations systems and translates them to the modern world. Permaculture *is* earlier wisdom proven effective via scientific method.

Please share some examples of the connection you make between localization and “intimacy of knowledge”.

The intimacy refers to the question and answer above, and recreating that connection to our spaces so that we “know” our spaces more intuitively than we do now. After living within the rhythms of the natural world for a time, we will rediscover our awareness of patterns, our pattern literacy, and be able to interact with our world as part of it rather than separate from it. We will know our own environment well and be the best stewards of it. Control from beyond our neighborhoods/communities will be even more inappropriate than it is now. In the meantime, we can note the patterns and principles of sustainable living found in the extant sustainable cultures.

Where is consensus working for us right now?

It is, really. We are utterly addicted to individualism and have very visceral responses to having to coordinate intimately with others. But this is what PermOccupy can help us achieve. Most people simply don’t understand the massive degree of cooperation that sustainability requires locally, nationally and internationally. We simply cannot be truly sustainable without coordinating our resource consumption and emissions. This may mean, once we are all on board, merely creating local sustainability, but in the beginning, I see no way to manage resources fairly or effectively without global accounting.

It is a bit of a circular argument: every community becomes sustainable, the world is sustainable. The real problem is the transition from here to there. That is the hardest part. We have very clear ideas about what a sustainable world looks like. We have a clear idea of where we are. But moving from here to there? Oh, my!

Still, at the end of the day, think globally, act locally is the heart of the matter.

You say that permaculture is bio-mimicry. Really?!

Absolutely. I’m always amazed nobody thinks of it this way, but it absolutely is. How do we create Food Forests? Like nature creates forests. How do we re-grow forest ecosystems? The same way nature does. Growing soil? Ditto. Creating community? Nature’s patterns: circles, inward facing, common area… you know… so we actually talk to each other! Creating a system? Efficiency AND resilience through massive connectedness: every element has two, preferably more, connections to other elements and performs two or more functions. Waste? None.

This is the truest form of bio-mimicry. The term is usually used for applying things learned to technology, largely in isolation. Permaculture literally steals proudly directly from Mother Nature’s design manual and connects everything together into wonderfully creative and productive systems.
PermOccupy needs to be about governance at the neighborhood level. How do you get there in Detroit?
You tell me! Literally the hardest part of all this is that it involves people, us. Humanity is one whacky group of biological entities! Every neighborhood is going to write its own story based on who lives there, their needs, awareness, knowledge, ideologies, histories, cultures, etc.

Our Outreach Work Group is engaging in a Listening Campaign to hopefully become more aware of what an 85%+ community of color wants to address, given Occupy Detroit is even more White than 85% as far as I can tell. The Occupy the Hood movement, birthed in NY and Detroit is, as I understand it, a direct response to feeling Occupy wasn’t addressing the interests of persons of color.

Personally, I think we get individuals involved, they become knowledgeable and practiced at consensus/Occupy and start a small group in their neighborhoods. I think every city GA should have a neighborhood GA incubator, and have advocated for this, to no avail, in Detroit. We are repeating the errors of our oppressors: top-down governance instead of bottom up. Paulo Freire would be not so proud we are so poor at self-pedagogy.

Is private ownership or consumption the root of all that evil to PermOccupy?!

Neither and both. The root is quite simply delusion. The vast majority of humanity cannot fathom this can all come to a rather inglorious and rapid end. 800 years of essentially unbroken growth can do that to the silly human mind. We have no, ummm… institutional awareness of the nature of collapse or sense of limits. We must consume, but we’ve had societies that understood they had to live within the limits of their ecology for, well, ever. We’ve just forgotten we ever knew it. Overconsumption is, of course, the problem.

The ultimate problem? We have abdicated our rights to self-determination and to protest, and to even throw off a government or system so clearly working against our general interests in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Had we never abandoned it, they would not now have the power they do. Our Constitution is truly an amazing document. They got so much right. Had we listened to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and others, we would not have made many of the mistakes we have made. But, like any society, wealth made us lazy, so here we are.

An active, and activist, population is the only way to keep and maintain a healthy socio-political system. Make that a bottom-up system based in the principles of sustainability and you might just have something.

Can you give us an overview of what PermOccupy would look like?

Sure. You’d have General Assemblies in every neighborhood or small community. These would claim, according to each community’s situation, those powers and responsibilities they wished so long as they affected only their community. Any issues that affect populations beyond their borders would be shared with other communities, thus city level, bio-regional or national. But, the delegation is upward. This is vital. No community abdicates its powers, it only shares them, in consensus, with others affected by a shared issue. Delegation looks like this: Neighborhood > City > Bio-Region > National.

In this way, each successive level is given the powers it has, it does not claim them. This prevents the accumulation of powers by smaller and smaller numbers of people. Of course, where an issue is city-wide, a rogue neighborhood that is truly acting purely in its own self-interest would be moderated by the need to come to consensus with the rest of the neighborhoods, a.k.a. the city GA. It really is that simple. And consensus can work here because you always have a small number of people working to consensus. Imagine a GA of 700k people in Detroit! But a GA of fifty or a hundred made up of reps from each neighborhood can find consensus. One of the most powerful aspects of consensus, imo, is that if consensus can’t be reached, it probably is not something vital, anyway, or, you haven’t found the right solution. Long and careful observation and planning is a key principle of Permaculture. Consensus can help us do this despite ourselves.

Now, imagine that every one of these groups is committed to and practicing sustainable design? Your sustainability is then an inevitable outcome of the growth of PermOccupy. All decisions would be made with full consideration of principles of sustainable design, no exceptions. During the transition there will obviously be some sub-optimal choices made as bridges to fully sustainable solutions, but this must occur within a context and awareness of them being temporary.

Finally, I don’t believe our current economic or political structures can adapt to sustainability. First, it must be local. Our current structures are the exact opposite. Second, it must be steady-state, or essentially no-growth, which would cause our current economic system, thus the political system so dependent on it, to collapse completely out of our control. Third, the powerful rarely ever give their power away freely; it must be removed from them. Fourth, deep change in our systems takes considerable time, but scientists are warning we have till *maybe* 2020 to start deep, systemic change. The Democrats and Republicans will still be trying to convince us the other is the real problem as both wallow in corporate money.

To think localized, sustainable systems can be designed, implemented and managed from national capitols is as good a definition of madness as you are likely to find. No, we must create the system that is the future now and start living it. We must opt into the new paradigm while opting out of the old, and let it die as it will. (I was very surprised to hear David Holmgren say this, almost verbatim, in “Anima Mundi” when I was watching it yesterday.) And if it, in its death throes, chooses to use force against change, then we will just have to prove Gandhi right by standing our ground, because once they fight you, you win.

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Killian’s Bio –

Killian O’Brien is a teacher with 14 years of experience. Recognizing the urgent need for change as the Perfect Storm of climate change, resource depletion and the resulting economic instability, he brought his family on an odyssey to find a place to settle down and teach sustainable design to those least likely to have access to such information. The Permaculture and Resilience Initiative – Detroit (PRI-De) was established in 2009 and has trained nearly two dozen individuals in Permaculture Design

Connections –

Killian O’Brien
Director, Permaculture and Resilience Initiative – Detroit
admin at pri-de.org
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(313) 247-7441


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