by Zev Friedman

I’m proposing the ancient cultural pattern of mutual aid as a potential strategy for growing our movement up so it can have the transformative impact that it’s been dreaming of since inception. I see PINA’s ambitious framework as a powerful servant of this mission, and I think that mutual aid might just be the special sauce that could help PINA really start to take hold and gather momentum.

In my opinion, wealthy-nation permaculture attempts are mostly missing an essential organ, and mostly having limited impact and limited success for that reason. This organ is a thing found in almost all traditional societies: a unique cultural-economic connective tissue that makes economies relational instead of just transactional, and grows long-term trust and community capacity. “Mutual aid” is an English language attempt to describe that organ.

We’ve now got a regional mutual aid network called Co-operate WNC ( operating at toddler stage and growing in the mountains of western North Carolina, and we’re beginning to learn enough that Peter Bane and Koreen Brennan asked me to share our vision, through this article and through a novel 4- part PINA Webinar we’re developing, to debut in September of this year.

I was having a crisis of meaning in winter 2016, after the 2016 election results and the release of several climate science reports. All of our dedication (the permaculture and bioregional movements) didn’t seem to be adding up to the transformative vision hatched in the early 80s, the vision that we would grow a planetary network of regenerative land use, bio-regionally appropriate cultures, cottage industries, compassionate inter-generational communities, and diverse co-operative governance structures. These ideas would take off because of their clear desirability and sensibility, because it would feel better to be human in this way, and because we had to do these things in order to survive.

Instead, we’re burning more fossil fuels, the crisis of consumerism and the crisis of fragmented individualism is even more severe, fascists are taking over various national governments, extinction is proceeding apace, and the holders of wealth and power are becoming ever more concentrated and less interested in systemic change.

In the midst of that depression, I sent out a letter to all the hundreds of my past permaculture clients, asking for updates on their projects. Out of those who responded, less than half of them still owned the properties they had hired me to help develop! Marriages had broken up, mortgages had defaulted, cancer and accidents had happened, exhaustion and despair had deflated inspiration, farming business plans had failed, communal groups had cracked under the stress.

This fact shocked me to the core, and precipitated a key insight: that under the facade of normality, USA culture is so traumatized, and community so fragmented, and basic needs going so severely unmet, that most people don’t have the baseline of resources, relationships, safety, and emotional stability to succeed at the long-term, complex land projects that permaculture has defined itself around.

An ancient cultural survival pattern

At that point, I had been reading about mutual aid for several years, and while casting around for a sense of agency and next steps in my own life and work, I kept coming back to mutual aid again and again. “Mutual aid” is a term that Peter Kropotkin popularized in his 1890’s book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. He made the point that Darwin’s painstakingly collected evidence showed more mutualism in biology and ecology than it did competition, but that the architects of the Industrial Revolution cherry-picked Darwin’s evidence to justify their ideology of dog-eat-dog competition, dismantling of the commons, and brutal exploitation of “resources.”

Kropotkin uses Darwin’s own evidence exhaustively to paint a picture of life as much more mutualistic rather than competitive. He then does the same thing for human culture, examining society after society and describing their well-established, usually formalized and even ritualized “mutual aid societies,” through which our diverse ancestors collaborated at the greater-than-village scale to ensure for resiliency, resource sharing, land use co-ordination, response to natural disasters, survival in the face of oppression, and to nurture the hopeful futures they imagined. They fought oppression and fascism with co-operation, and their lineages survived.

There are many historical examples to look to from pretty much every culture and place. Some of the most inspiring to me are Via Campesina, the Zapatistas, the Federation of Southern Co-operatives (USA), mutualistas, Gadugi, and ZTOS in the Warsaw Ghetto. Also the Grange, a USA mutual aid society specifically organized to support farmers and rural life.

Marginalized peoples by far have the most intact mutual aid networks, because they’ve used them to survive. Our movement needs to be courting and paying leaders from marginalized groups to share their hard-won practices and wisdom with us, when appropriate.

In the US, mutual aid societies provided African-American communities a vital self-empowerment tool after slavery was “abolished.” In Jim Crow America, banks owned by white supremacists wouldn’t lend money to black entrepreneurs trying to gain traction in the US economy. Faced with no alternatives, African-Americans pooled money, started mutual aid societies, and founded their own hospitals, trade associations, farms, housing developments, colleges, emergency response teams, funeral and death care functions. These co-operative funds led to the development of black-owned credit unions. The cultural-economic glue and trust created through this level of interdependence worked in synergy with black churches to nourish and develop into the tight co-ordination of the 1960s civil rights movement, something which the white progressives movement are still mostly failing to mimic.

Wedding economics to culture

I experienced a revelation in my own systems understanding of what holds permaculture back. As suggested above, most people need more support in their lives in order to successfully do visionary and transformative things. Since we’re in such a broken system where the fulfillment of many needs is only made possible through the cash economy, the main limit to that support in the short- to medium-term is access to the cash economy, which is controlled through a carefully rigged power structure. Think of all the aspiring permaculturists working day jobs so they can pay for health insurance and a mortgage for land, and car repairs, and yes, food, while then trying to bootstrap permaculture systems with the trimmings of time they have left over.

We need to grow an entirely new economy from the composted remains of the current one, an economy based on biomimicry, regenerative culture, and co-operation. It will probably involve cash, and also alternative currencies, and other forms of reciprocity and exchange. This is what Mollison’s entire Chapter 14 is all about—check it out. But this process will take time. There are many layers of work and nuance. There are extremely powerful forces who will be fighting back tooth and nail the more successful we become, and in the meantime we all need to survive and have space to do all this work.

I believe that the only way to get leverage in this system is through the power of appropriate scale. Working as a gaggle of homesteaders, operating without deep co-ordination or long-term cultural glue, we’re simply too few and too transient to turn the massive ship of our society’s trajectory. Our ancestors dealt with similar challenges; the cultural DNA of their accumulated response is called mutual aid.

Over the past two year span I got serious about all of this, established a network of advisors, did lots of reading and networking, and then was blessed to gain funding from a private source beginning in September 2018 for myself full-time and 2 part-time staff to begin developing Co-operate WNC in earnest.

Biocultural mycorrhizae

Co-operate WNC’s vision is to grow a mutual aid society that uses co-operative economics to support a regional network of physical community centers. Our membership will be based explicitly on shared values: earth care, people care, and economic justice (sound familiar?). These community centers start from existing initiatives in their communities, and through the mutual aid network are resourced and supported to provide human services such as healthcare, childcare, adult education, emergency response, and food access, while also acting as organizing hubs for regenerative design and climate resilience.

Co-operative economies include things like community savings pools (small groups of 10-20 participants who enter long-term peer mentoring relationships, where each participant put money into a common pool each month, and decide as a group each month, who among themselves should get 0% interest-free loans for projects and needs), timebanking, alternative currencies, and potentially the creation of a mutual aid credit union.

Mycorrhizae are Co-operate WNC’s main operating biological metaphor. As in a forest, the trees, shrubs and herbs are other regional organizations, community centers, communities, and their assets, in our region especially those related to regenerative land management, co-op economics, healthcare, and other programming priorities. Co-operate WNC ties them all together, shuttling nutrients (wealth and resources) and information between players, to create a more coherent set of trusting relationships. Co-operate WNC doesn’t own or manage these hub elements together; rather they are designed, owned, and operated by local residents in each area.

Furthermore, as with real mycorrhizae, our spores germinate into hyphae in response to the hormones released from the roots of a plant, signaling that it is ready for partnership. In other words, we respond to existing community centers and organizing efforts, then spring up to support them with nutrients (co-operative financing), information (training and knowledge), and relationship strengthening as they become part of a larger interdependent system. Ownership originates and continues within existing centers of initiative; we help them to grow from their strengths (outward on controlled fronts).

We’re setting up regional scale co-operative financing mechanisms like the savings pools mentioned above, and a regenerative carbon credit initiative that will take carbon credit payments from organizations and individuals desiring to offset their current carbon footprints while reducing them over time. Their money then pays landowners and farmers in our region for 3-5 year establishment costs for agroforestry plantings in degraded landscapes, similar to what the Ithaka Institute is doing in Nepal.

By working at a regional scale, these co-operative financing mechanisms help us to get over cost hurdles and develop much more robust community centers, which also benefit from the sense of awareness and support of the wider community. For example, after we have 5,000 members and a Common Fund of $10-20 million, the Co-operate WNC membership might democratically choose to loan $300-500k in low interest loans to each of three new community centers sites in a year. These build more function in their immediate communities, involving more people involved, and the whole thing snowballs.

Mutual Aid as a model for PINA hubs

I believe that PINA’s model of regional hubs is a good way to go for pursuing the goals of wider credibility for permaculture, professional development for graduates, elevating standards, and providing mentorship.

The thing is, most permaculturists need greater functionality in our daily lives to enable participation in a wider organization like PINA. I think this is why we’re seeing slow development of regional hubs. A couple years ago, I began beating the drum to start one here, but I ran out of steam and had a hard time getting people to keep coming to meetings. We were tapping a bunch of people who are already leading and initiating all kinds of stuff. They need something that helps with their existing efforts, rather than layering on added complication.

What if the same group focused on starting a regional mutual aid network, perhaps with a single location starting out as the first community center, providing services and functions that made the members’ lives easier? Yes, permaculture education and business development and research could be a part of it, but also childcare and healthcare and low-interest co-operative business loans. All in one place, among one value-sharing community. And each regional hub would be linked together by PINA’s network into an ever larger organism that could eventually even do things like start a [successful] Permaculture Credit Union with enough critical mass to work.

In other words, I believe that initiating a a permaculture-oriented mutual aid network could be a powerful way to start each regional PINA hubs. If you’re intrigued, please join us for the 4-session PINA Webinar beginning on September 19th. Register Here for the webinar.  We’ll expand on all of this, and explore successful methods!  

You can also check out Co-operate WNC, listen to The Mutual Aid Podcast,  and support us at our Patreon account (Co-operate WNC and Zev Friedman).