“Global Permaculture not Politics!” – Interview with Rhamis Kent, Co-Director, The Permaculture Research Institute (Australia & USA). By Willi Paul Studio / Planetshifter.com
“Our task is to discover the role we each are supposed to play and do it to the best of our ability. We aren’t all equipped to do the same things. But whatever we’re individually capable of doing, we are charged with doing the utmost with it. That is the ultimate tribute and how we leave our individual mark – ideally, in the service of something that’s bigger than us.” Rhamis
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Interview with Rhamis by Willi
Is Capitalism the future of permaculture?
Perhaps natural capitalism – not one based on industrialization and financialization.
In a book titled Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, the authors (Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins) see the world’s economy as being within the larger economy of natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain us. The authors argue that only through recognizing this essential relationship with the Earth’s valuable resources can businesses, and the people they support, continue to exist.
According to the authors, the “next industrial revolution” depends on the espousal of four central strategies:
1. The conservation of resources through more effective manufacturing processes.
2. The reuse of materials as found in natural systems.
3. A change in values from quantity to quality and
4. Restoring and sustaining natural resources.
Permaculture, as a design science, presents a methodology for possibly achieving some of the aforementioned.
My friend, the environmental filmmaker John D. Liu, wrote an article entitled “Functional Ecosystems as the Engine of the Green Economy” that does a pretty good job of describing what should form the basis for a sensible economy given the physical realities of the world we live in:
“From the study of natural ecosystems comes an economic answer that goes to the fundamental question of ‘what is wealth?’. Although everything that is produced and consumed comes from the bounty of the Earth, according to current economic thinking, the value of ecological function is zero. We now calculate the economy and money as the sum total of production and consumption of goods and services. By valuing products and services without recognising the ecological function from which they are derived, we have created a perverse incentive to degrade the Earth’s ecosystems.”
“Functional ecosystems can be shown to be more valuable than production and consumption. A pathway to sustainability appears if, instead of the economy being based on production and consumption of goods and services, it [was] based on ecosystem function. This would mean a fundamental transformation of human society. This development trajectory can be seen to address all of our most pressing problems. In an economy based on ecological function it would be economically disastrous to pollute. A functional economy would mean that conservation is not considered an expensive luxury, but the way to preserve wealth. It would also mean that restoration of degraded lands would be recognised as a means to increase wealth. Sequestering carbon would be a matter of course rather than an afterthought. A functional ecosystem-based economy would be much more fairly distributed, because those responsible for maintaining that function – currently those who suffer worst from the degradation inflicted by consumer capitalism – would be compensated for restoring and maintaining ecosystem functions.”
Do you have faith in your government? In your neighbors? How and Why?
I have faith in anyone who is guided by some semblance of an ethical sensibility. If they happen to be working in government or living next door as my neighbors, even better.
Ethics in many ways seems to be something alien to too many people nowadays. They’re more taken by the novelty of technique and technology – which is merely concerned with whether or not there exists the capability of being able to do something. Ethics is focused on determining whether or not something SHOULD be done even if the capability exists.
Applying this to understanding how our legal systems operate, ethics are by and large seen as an anachronism. If government – or matters related to civics (i.e. – your neighbors, fellow citizens, etc.) - operates with solely a focus on law (“following the rules”) that fails to be informed by ethics, then we’re potentially challenged with having to deal with a system of legalized oppression & criminality.
How does one come to have “faith in Nature?”
Well, I’m a practicing Muslim – so I believe in God. I have “faith in Nature” to the extent that I have faith in the One who fashioned it. According to this faith tradition, part of the central responsibility of the human being is to act as a vicegerent (a caretaker – NOT dominator) of the Earth and to be a cultivator of it. This requires having a working knowledge of how it functions, what rights nature has over you, and what responsibilities you have towards it. There is a vast history which speaks to this understanding. The history of Moorish Spain would be one of the more powerful & compelling examples. You can find written historical references about this period through something called the Filaha Tests Project.
All in all, nature is the best working infrastructure we’ve got. It’s the only game in town, really.
Can we have faith in the source of your/our garden seeds? Do you believe that Monsanto and other plant DNA profiteers will change course one day?
This is an increasingly huge dilemma for people concerned about the genetic stock of the seeds they’re selecting for gardens, orchards, farms, etc. Essentially, the big agribusiness transnational corporations are attempting to consolidate the entire food chain. Monopolizing food – and possessing exclusive ownership over the technologies connected to producing food – is tragically viewed as a guaranteed way to generate huge profits in perpetuity since everybody needs to eat.
Whatever can be done to operate independently and outside of such a system should be pursued. These are people who cannot – and should not – be trusted. There’s no reason why they ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. Their collective track record speaks to the contrary.
Can you earn a PDC strictly online? Does PRI offer such a course?
PRI’s managing director, Geoff Lawton, offers an online course that has gotten excellent feedback and great results judging from the designs produced by the students that have taken it. The experience taking the course online is very different from taking it in the same physical space with a group of people. They both have their uses and strengths. As long as people are given access to the information in the manner that suits them best – and the quality of the instruction is high – that’s what matters most. I’ve done some teaching online but most of what I do is face to face.
What do you consider as the “leading edge” in your work at PRI? What are the key differences between the current Australian vs USA research interests and client work?
I work mostly outside of the U.S. and find that there’s a different set of issues I find myself gravitating towards within that context. Land degradation and desertification has been a particular topic of interest for me – especially seeing how it intersects with issues related to human security globally. At this point, we have access to enough surveys of human history to observe how it is largely driven and determined by the mismanagement of land-based resources (specifically – deforestation & habitat destruction, soil degradation, and water management problems). I’ve witnessed this personally with my own work operating in the MENA/GCC Region, Southern Europe (Northern Mediterranean), Central and South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
From what I’ve been able to see, the focus in the U.S. is on homesteading, market gardening, variations on urban agriculture, and (to a lesser degree) trying to expand on opportunities for regenerative/agroecological systems to be applied more widely. I think what I have to offer isn’t particularly useful in advancing those particular efforts at the moment. There are plenty of very capable folks working on that stuff already.
Compare and contrast PRI and Permies.com?
Honestly, I don’t know enough about Permies.com to give an informed comment. I haven’t spent much time with the online forums, really – not even PRI’s.
How is permaculture like, and unlike, survivalism? Do you have colleagues and for-profit projects in the latter camp?
I think permaculture is attempting to create the conditions that render survivalism unnecessary. One of the primary ethical principles permaculture Is built upon is People Care. Survivalism strikes me as being very much motivated by a “me first” way of looking at the world and everything outside of “you” being a potential adversary. I don’t see as much of an emphasis on fostering community & cooperation (outside of other survivalists) – and if it is, the groups are quite small and very provincial.
I see permaculture as being, in principle & practice, much more expansive. People care, implicitly, means that “I’m safe if you’re safe, I’m taken care of if you’re taken care – I’m in danger if you’re in danger”. Survivalism strikes me as being more “I’m safe, I’m taken care of and you’re danger but that’s not my business – except if you put me in danger”.
I have to say that I am intrigued by survivalism and have some measure of admiration for some of it – but I don’t see it as being what is ultimately needed to overcome what challenges us as a species – and maybe that’s the point to begin with.
Do you think that permaculture in general is political? Are you a member of a political party?
I don’t see permaculture as political, necessarily. I claim no membership to any political party. The idea of a politically partisan permaculture saddens me. I’m already aware of very deep political divisions that exists within (some) permaculture circles, whether or not I like it. In fact, referring back to the question about survivalism, I see elements of permaculture being grafted onto/incorporated into the survialists movement – especially in places like the U.S.
I think permaculture emerged as a response to the failure of politics. To quote Bill Mollison himself, he said permaculture is:
“…a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.”
I see permaculture as being an expression of practical ethics – which, in many ways, would be diametrically opposed to politics since they’re largely amoral (if not immoral) and unethical. Politics is essentially solely concerned with gaining (and holding) power and imposing an ideology that represents & animates a certain constituency.
Agroforestry and food forests; Social Responsibility and Permaculture; Regenerative? Resilience. DIY! There are many terms and many camps out here. What could help “the movement” come together?
That’s a tough question to answer. I agree with the need to try broadening the appeal of what permaculture has to offer (without compromising its principles). I’ve long said that permaculture’s dilemma is one of “marketing” & “P.R.” – that’s the world in which we’ve all been shaped, if we’re honest. That’s what we’re competing with. We’re in the “marketplace of ideas” and we have to be able to operate within that landscape if permaculture is to gain more support and participation.
I believe one of our challenges is identifying ways in which permaculture can be applied to a variety of different fields of endeavor which will enable it to have more of an appeal – because we’re trying to meet people “where they’re at”.
Success breeds success and people want to be affiliated with success & the folks who are responsible for producing success. The more successful examples of permaculture-related projects we can create, document, and present the more appeal it will have.
Consider the Green-Tech sector, with its global investors and financial machinery. Does permaculture compete with its investors, publicity and Wall Street backbone?
These people - and the institutions they’re attached to – exist so they must be dealt with. How do we identify common interests that allow for us to sit down and talk? A great deal of what accounts for Green-Tech isn’t really all that “green” or “sustainable” in truth. It’s a form of “less-destructivism” that prevents us from moving more in the direction we need to be going. It’s the same fatal error that has plagued industrialism (both capitalist & communist variants). What’s really being sold is the right to use someone else’s exclusive intellectual property that may or may not allow us to be collective more “sustainable”. But I think it’s important to highlight that finding the best definitive solution for “sustainability isn’t even the ultimate goal – it’s successfully finding as large a market share for your IP as possible.
The well-known economist Nouriel Roubini was quoted to have said:
“If we didn't have greed, market economies wouldn't be as innovative as they are. But in my view, greed has to be contained by the fear of losses, so there has to be a system where, if you take too much risk, you go into bankruptcy. You don't systematically bail out people who take excessive risks.”
In a very real sense investors, publicists, Wall Street bankers, etc. are all seen as being instruments and agents of greed. If Roubini’s point about greed having to be contained by loss, what’s the fear that would need to be appealed to? For me, it’s simply a matter of logic: How do you “create wealth” if you’ve destroyed the source of all wealth creation – the natural world? Even if you’ve made all the money you could possibly want, how and where can you enjoy spending it if everything has been destroyed or ruined? Where do you go on vacation?
How do we identify an “enlightened self-interest” that can motivate these types of people to do the right thing?
Do see the current “shovel and berm” permaculture tool kit as slowing the spread and efficiencies of permaculture?
Concerning “slowing the spread and efficiencies of permaculture” my observation is that PEOPLE are the rate-limiting factor. Technologies, strategies, techniques, etc. are tools. You still need people that know how, when, and where to apply them. This requires good judgement and intelligence. We need wisdom more than we need new, novel technologies. The fixation with technology (strategy & technique, included) ends up becoming a distraction which prevents us from addressing the actual problem – which, again, is fundamentally bad judgement.
This isn’t to say technology isn’t needed, but too often it obscures dealing with what we are more critically lacking in.
Permaculture design is about working with energies. Do we need to adopt a specific spiritual platform to advance permaculture into the main stream?
We need to operate from a very well-developed (and fully operational) ethical sensibility – whether or not that is taken from a particular spiritual tradition. I believe rationality has its limits and you have to begin to question epistemologies that are solely based on human reason. The human mind – and its ability to reason - is not God.
Personally, I’ve gained a great deal of benefit looking at my permaculture-related work through the lens of the Islamic tradition. It provides a deeply profound, rich, and very useful means by which to reference how our human experience is to be properly understood and contextualized.
Since I was coincidently just reading about some of this very recently, I’ll quote a couple of things that communicate a few of my thoughts:
"Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain. Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is "proof that the system works" to Europeans. Clearly, there are two completely opposing views at issue here, and Marxism is very far over to the other side from the American Indian view. But let's look at a major implication of this; it is not merely an intellectual debate."
"The European materialist tradition of despiritualizing the universe is very similar to the mental process which goes into dehumanizing another person. And who seems most expert at dehumanizing other people? And why? Soldiers who have seen a lot of combat learn to do this to the enemy before going back into combat. Murderers do it before going out to commit murder. Nazi SS guards did it to concentration camp inmates. Cops do it. Corporation leaders do it to the workers they send into uranium mines and steel mills. Politicians do it to everyone in sight. And what the process has in common for each group doing the dehumanizing is that it makes it all right to kill and otherwise destroy other people. One of the Christian commandments says, "Thou shalt not kill," at least not humans, so the trick is to mentally convert the victims into non-humans. Then you can proclaim violation of your own commandment as a virtue."
"In terms of the de-spiritualization of the universe, the mental process works so that it becomes virtuous to destroy the planet. Terms like progress and development are used as cover words here, the way victory and freedom are used to justify butchery in the dehumanization process. For example, a real-estate speculator may refer to "developing" a parcel of ground by opening a gravel quarry; development here means total, permanent destruction, with the earth itself removed. But European logic has gained a few tons of gravel with which more land can be "developed" through the construction of road beds. Ultimately, the whole universe is open--in the European view--to this sort of insanity." - Russell Means (1980)
“All of creation makes demands upon man, because he is created in God’s form and has been appointed His vicegerent (khalifa). He has the God-given duty, woven into his original created nature (fitra), to recognize the haqq [right] of things and to act accordingly. It is this haqq that must be known if his knowledge is to be true, right, worthy, and appropriate, for this haqq is identical with the khalq [creation] that God has established.”
“In short, beneficial knowledge is knowledge of ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ of ourselves and of things. In order to know a thing truly and benefit from the knowledge, we need to know what it is—its reality (haqīqa), which is nothing but its khalq and its haqq—and we need to know how we should respond to it. What exactly does it demand from us, rightly, truly, and appropriately? To put this into a formula, tahqīq means knowing the haqīqa of God and things and acting according to their haqq: Realization is to know things as they truly are and act appropriately in every circumstance.” - William Chittick, “Ibn ‘Arabi on the Benefit of Knowledge”
Please share a favorite fiction, permaculture story or song. What does it tell us about the future?
I’m reminded of a poem from Jalaluddin Rumi that I find really moving called “Poem of the Atoms”. It was featured in the Iranian film “Bab’Aziz”. The verses are:
O’ day, arise!
Shine your light, the atoms are dancing.
Thanks to Him the universe is dancing.
overcome with ecstasy,
Free from body and mind
I’ll whisper in your ear where their dance is leading them.
All the atoms in the air and in the desert are dancing,
puzzled and drunken to the ray of light,
they seem insane.
All these atoms are not so different than we are,
happy or miserable,
perplexed and bewildered,
we are all beings in the ray of light from the beloved,
nothing can be said.
I think Rumi is telling us, in so many words, we’re in good hands. It’s bigger than us and our preferences, desires, opinions, etc. All of those things are encompassed by the Reality we occupy: the heroes & the villains, the saints & the sinners, the good & the evil.
Our task is to discover the role we each are supposed to play and do it to the best of our ability. We aren’t all equipped to do the same things. But whatever we’re individually capable of doing, we are charged with doing the utmost with it. That is the ultimate tribute and how we leave our individual mark – ideally, in the service of something that’s bigger than us.
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rhamis at permaculture.org.au
Co-Director of The Permaculture Research Institute (Australia & USA); Consultant, Permaculture Sustainable Consulting. Rhamis is a consultant with formal training in mechanical engineering (University of Delaware, B.S.M.E. ’95) and permaculture-based regenerative whole systems design serving as an accredited permaculture design instructor with the Permaculture Research Institute. He has previously worked for the renowned American inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen at DEKA Research & Development, with subsequent engineering work ranging from medical device research and development to aerospace oriented mechanical design.
Since 2010, Rhamis has taught permaculture design in Palestine/Occupied West Bank, Greece, Ethiopia, Yemen, Turkey, Thailand, and the United States. He has also performed additional consultancy work on projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the greater MENA/GCC region.
As Principal of Willi Paul Studio, Willi partners with companies and individuals to provide custom contract media services including articles, interviews, edu-videos, roundtables and eWorkshops. He co-develops and expands each clients’ creative vision and excels in delivering content in a captivating and authentic way. His target clients are Start-Ups, B-Corps, Incubators and Non-Profit Organizations. Planetshifter.com is an online community magazine, diverse database and outreach network that launched on Earth Day 2009. Planetshifter.com provides a deep database and wealth of information that includes 225 thought leader interviews with leading mythologists, permaculturists and artists, 2420 articles, 92 New Myths, 33 eBooks and 157 videos. As a globally-connected writer and activist in the Sustainability, Permaculture, Transition, SpiritNature, and New Mythology sectors, Mr. Paul is a visionary for the new global mythologist. Please find him on Facebook, LinkedIn and DPA.com.