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Permaculture, anarchism, and anarchy in Denver's collective community

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Title:
Permaculture, anarchism, and anarchy in Denver's collective community
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Polk, Stephen
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English
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vii, 107 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Permaculture -- Colorado -- Denver ( lcsh )
Anarchism -- Colorado -- Denver ( lcsh )
Collectivism -- Colorado -- Denver ( lcsh )
Self-service (Economics) ( lcsh )
Anarchism ( fast )
Collectivism ( fast )
Permaculture ( fast )
Self-service (Economics) ( fast )
Colorado -- Denver ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 103-107).
General Note:
Department of Political Science
Statement of Responsibility:
by Stephen Polk.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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ocn786293362
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LD1193.L64 2011M P65 ( lcc )

Full Text
PERMACULTURE, ANARCHISM AND ANARCHY IN DENVERS
COLLECTIVE COMMUNITY
by
Stephen Polk
B.A. University of Colorado Denver
A thesis submitted to the University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Masters of Arts
Political Science
2011


This thesis for the Masters of Arts
degree by
Stephen Polk
Has been approved
By
Tony Robinson
Date


Polk, Stephen M (M.A., Political Science)
Permaculture, Anarchism, and Anarchy in Denver's Collective Community
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Tony Robinson
ABSTRACT
This thesis posits that the creation of an actual Permaculture requires the
integration of self-regulating ecosystems with self-regulating cultures or social
systems. A Permaculture also requires a material transformation of daily life as well
as a perceptual transformation of humanitys current relationship to the natural world.
The theories and practices of permaculture, anarchism and anarchy are explored from
two aspects: one of analysis and synthesis, and also as documented, ethnographic
research of Denver's collective community. From the analytical aspect, permaculture
is presented as a practice oriented approach to creating self-regulating ecosystems.
There is also a corresponding philosophy in permaculture that challenges prevailing
perceptions of humanitys relationship to the natural world. Contemporary anarchism
and anarchy are presented as practice oriented approaches that strive to reinvent daily
life through the creation of a distinct political culture of resistance. This culture, I
argue, strives to create self-regulating social systems.
Through employment of ethnographic methods, I present research on a
specific community existing within Denver, Colorado's DIY counterculture. This
community, referred to as (Denver's) collective community, is an alternative culture
engaged in anarchic forms of practice that are guided by values of self-organization,
egalitarianism, direct action and DIY. Utilizing this cultural/social practice, Denver's
collective community is creating self-regulating social systems. This collective social
project is combined with a growing knowledge and implementation of ecological
techniques and strategies inspired and informed by permaculture design and
philosophy. Therefore, I conclude that the beginnings of an actual urban Permaculture
are beginning to show itself in Denvers collective community; a Permaculture whose
goal is one of eco-social integration through material and perceptual transformation.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
its publication.
Signed
Tony Robinson


DEDICATION
This thesis is dedicated to my family, friends, and most importantly, to Denver
collective community. May our gardens grow greener and our practice more
affective!


ACKNOWLEDGMENT
Special thanks go to Tony Robinson, my advisor, and undoubtedly my mentor, and to
Lucy McGuffey, a true inspiration. Thanks must also be given to Tara and Terese.
Both of you continue to inspire me both in life and also intellectually. Thank you.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I. ANEW BEGINNING............................................8
Introduction.........................................10
Chapter Outline......................................22
Methodology..........................................25
Conclusion...........................................29
II. PERMACULTURE AS ECOLOGICAL ACTIVISM...................... 32
Section 1: Sheet Mulching............................33
Section 2: Forest Gardening..........................42
Section 3: Conclusion................................53
III. ANARCHISM AS POLITICAL CULTURE..........................56
Section 1: Contemporary Anarchism as Political Culture.... 61
Section 2: Anarchist Models of Organization..........62
Section 3: Repertoires of Action.....................66
Direct Action................................66
Prefigurative Direct Action..................69
Consensus....................................70
Section 4: Conclusion................................73
IV. CASE STUDY: THE BEGINNINGS OF AN ACTUAL
PERMACULTURE.................................................76
Section 1: Describing Denver's Collective Community..79
VI


Section 2: Denver's collective community explored,
84
Community.................................85
Egalitarianism through Consensus..........86
Permaculture Design and Direct Action.....89
The Urban Imperative......................92
Section 3: The Collective........................94
Community vs. Consensus...................95
Permaculture and Direct Action............98
Permaculture Philosophy at The Collective.100
Section 4: Conclusion............................103
V. CONCLUSION............................................. 106
REFERENCES................................................112
vii


Chapter 1
ANEW BEGINNING
Its late April, 2009 and spring is just beginning to shake winters spell on a
quarter of an acre lot in urban Denver. A constant flow of around twenty people mill
about in short sleeves as snow lingers in the shade of the large house and fences.
Groups of people, three to four deep, are scattered about the yard. Laughter and
discussions are constant, often leading into friendly debates over ecology, design and
permaculture as an ensemble of hands and garden tools transform a barren yard into a
productive, resilient ecosystem.
Surrounding the yard and into the alley are piles of various materials soon to
be incorporated into this ecosystem: manure, leaves, kitchen scraps, woody mulch,
cardboard, stacks of dumpstered shipping palates and salvaged wood. An essential
task of the day is to build the soil until its beautifully putrid and moist (personal
communication, 8-30-10), through a practice called sheet mulching. Sheet mulching
is a permaculture technique of building healthy soil where none exists. The practice
of sheet mulching replicates the process of soil formation that occurs on the forest
floor. A forest, it has been observed by permaculturists, continually regenerates its
own soil through a layering of dead plant material and animal feces. By layering
organic matter (cardboard, manure, compost, leaves), the ecological occurrence of
soil formation on the forest floor is replicated on the home garden scale. Appropriate
nutrients are generated through this process, while beneficial micro-organisms and
1


insects populate the dirt to form a healthy and productive soil ecosystem.1
Another group of people have taken it upon themselves to construct a fence
out of the scavenged shipping pallets and wood. The fence is designed to split the
yard into two main sections or zones: A zone for the garden, contemplation, a
trampoline and the tool shed-tumed-room, and a zone for hanging out, a place for the
dogs and the high density traffic of bicycles and people. An herb spiral is also in the
works, which is an earthen mound designed to create multiple micro-climates for
growing various herbaceous plants. A compost pile is constructed, and multiple other
garden beds are placed in areas close to the house so that storm gutters can be re-
routed as a source of free water.
Throughout the day, I cant help but to think of an 18th or 19th century bam
raising, Americana style, in the sense that a community has come together for the
sake of commencing a relationship between humans and their surrounding
environment. Though no bams or other such structures are being erectedthe large
house was built a century ago, and the tool shed will soon become a room for one of
the dozen residentswhat is being accomplished today is the building of structures
that will decrease residents dependence on the prevailing market economy, while
simultaneously increasing the biodiversity and resiliency of 10,890 square feet of
earth in a somewhat dense urban area. Yet another goal of today, less explicit but
'Both sheet mulching and composting rely on the processes of decomposition as a
means of generating healthy soil and also soil additives, respectfully. The techniques
differ in that sheet mulching is an in-situ approach to soil formation, meaning that
decomposition is carried out on top of existing vegetation at the exact location where
garden beds are to be located. Composting takes place at a remote location in the
yard, where the output is soil additive that is applied throughout the garden.
2


perhaps equally important, is one of connection. This gardening party is laying a
structural and ecological foundation that will help facilitate a working relationship to
and connection with the ecosystem that is about to flourish.
Introduction
This is The Collective,2 a new intentional housing community that formed
in Denver, Colorado in the spring of 2009. Around 25 people showed up that day,
logging 50 hours of labor in just under 4 hours (personal communication, 8-30-2010).
Their goal was to help establish one of the most important elements of their house:
the yarden. Like a garden, a yarden is for growing food and providing habitat for
myriad different species. Like a yard, a yarden is a place for leisure, for social
interaction. A yarden, then, is where the social and ecological realms most frequently
interact, where food grows, and also people. At The Collective, there is going to be
plenty of both.
From an ecological perspective, The Collectives permaculture yarden is
flourishing into a habitat for thousands of species of plants, animals, insects and
microbiological life-forms. Influencing the various techniques and strategies
mentioned above is permaculture design, which aims to create not just gardens but
functionally interconnected ecosystems that are, as much as possible, self-sustaining
and resilient. Permaculture as a system of design is an increasingly comprehensive
approach to land use that aims to provide for the needs of humans, and the health and
well being of ecosystems, both human-constructed and naturally existing. And while
2 For the purpose of protecting the identity of the individuals involved with this
intentional community, and the actual community itself, I will refer to it from here
forward simply as The Collective. As will be explained below, the groups studied
are vulnerable to surveillance due to their radical nature.
3


The Collectives garden never reached the point of complete self-sustainabilitya
truly difficult taskthe permaculture techniques and strategies they used were
exemplary throughout Denvers collective community.
From the social perspective, The Collective was unquestionably a social
hub. It was one of a dozen or so collectives existing within Denvers collective
community. Each collective, in their own right, is a place of concentrated social
interaction where permaculture, politics, art, music, philosophy and food serve not
only as common interests that bind residents together, but as lived experience and
ecological, social or cultural practice. Most collectives are an eclectic and busy mix
of twenty-something artists, activists, musicians, permaculturists, chefs, students,
workers, writers, nutritionists, masseuses, and teachers (to mention but a few) who
are all involved, in various ways, in Denvers thriving countercultural, collective
community.
Another social element of The Collective is adherence to anarchic principles
and values. As with most collectives, egalitarian decision-making and democratic
consensus processes are prominent practicesprocesses indicative of the collective
scene's affinity to anarchism and anarchic lifestyles (see Graeber 2002, 2009; Epstein
2000; Purdue 2000). Direct action in the form of establishing permaculture gardens is
another widespread value. Many activists, anarchists and permaculturists believe that
planet wide ecological collapse is eminent if global systems continue on their current
course (Gordon 2009, p 249). Instead of lobbying the government, the local water
board or any other blamable agent (Bell 1992, pp 32-3), these activists directly
intervene to stop the on-going destruction by implementing permaculture design and
4


anarchic social relations as a sustainable, democratic alternative to growing
ecological destruction. In this sense, the collectives within the collective community
are striving to be self-regulating. Other values include a commitment to community,
ecological design and DIY3.
The Collective, and others like it, scattered throughout urban Denver and
even across the country and globe, are ongoing experiments in social and ecological
integration. It is believed by residents of such collective communities that the
connection between society and ecology is an essential element to their activism, and
by extension, to freedom generally. From a permaculture perspective, this connection
is presented simply as common-sense. Cofounder of the term permaculture,
Mollison (1991) states: Cultures cannot.survive for long without a sustainable
agricultural base and landuse ethic (p 1). The term permaculture itself refers not just
to permanent agriculture, but to permanent culture as well. Mollison (1988) insists
that only a permanent culture organized on a community or tribal level, is capable of
maintaining the knowledge, space, and infrastructure required for a permanent
agriculture:
Forests, not seen by industrial man as anything but wood, are another
permanent agriculture. But they need generations of care and knowledge,
and hence a tribal or communal reverence only found in stable
communities. This then, is the communal permanence many of us seek: to
be able to plant a pecan or citrus when we are old, and to know it will not be
cut down by our children's children (pg 6).
3 DIY stands for Do It Yourself. In the context of radical groups or communities, DIY
values self reliance in pursuit of personal or community autonomy. From building a
backyard chicken coop with mostly scavenged materials; performing, producing, and
distributing your own music or art independent of a music label; to building your own
garden bed and growing your own food, are all examples of DIY.
5


Building on this common-sense connection between society and ecology,
the permaculture movement calls into question existing structures of centralized
power. Many permaculture activists seek to build communities that can feed and
clothe themselvesfrom the soil to the tablefree from destructive or oppressive
powers such as resource monopolies (Rhizome Collective), or generalized entities
such as centralized power. Permaculture Activist, a quarterly magazine, defines
permaculture as, [aiming] to restructure society by returning control of resources for
living: food, water, shelter, and the means of livelihood, to ordinary people in their
communities, as the only antidote to centralized power (Permaculture Activist, p. 3).
From this radical perspective, the purpose of permaculture practice is not just to grow
food in your backyard, but to restructure society completely, so that community
autonomy extends to nearly every aspect of material life. By striving for truly
permanent cultures and agriculture (i.e. a permaculture) that incorporates self-
sustaining ecosystems and communities, permaculture can be a truly radical
movement.
This radical aspect of permaculturethough not uniformly adopted in the
permaculture movement nor in Denvers collective community (in general), nor at
The Collective (in specific)is an aspect it shares with many other radically oriented
groups engaged in eco-activism, specifically, anarchist oriented groups (cf Gray
2007). In his ethnographic research on permaculture groups in West Britain, Purdue
(2000) found that Permaculture favours an anarchic action-led approach (p 144).
Permaculturists often advocate for sweeping societal change through anarchic
principles such as practice oriented approaches, mutual aid (as informed by anarchist
6


and biologist, Peter Kropotkin), and participating in radically oriented political groups
(Purdue 2000, pp 156-59). Permacultures affinity with anarchic led approaches, and
also to anarchism generally, represents a novel approach to eco-activism that will be
explored at length in this thesis.
Anarchism, anarchy and permaculture in the context of Denvers collective
community comprises the broad focus of this thesis. Permaculture, as presented
briefly above, is the compression of permanent agriculture and permanent culture. In
order for an actual permaculture to exist, cooperative relationships must be made and
sustained between human culture and their surrounding environments; permaculture
requires that social systems become integrated with ecological systems. Regarding
the social elements, however, the permaculture literature is less developed. There is a
strong insistence on individuals and grassroots communities as the social units most
capable in creating these small-scale, intensive, yet regenerative systems. There are
also ethical standards in permaculture, design principles, and a corresponding
philosophy that challenges prevailing attitudes of humans and their roles and
relationships to the environmentboth of which guide social action to varying
degrees. But there exist few developed examples, especially in urban areas, of how an
actual permaculture might function, considered in both its ecological and also social
aspects. Far from being comprehensively defind, the permanent culture aspect of
permaculture is widely open-ended.
Enter the contemporary anarchist milieu. In recent years anarchism as a
political ideology and practice has grown considerably across the globe (Graeber
2007, p 303). Anarchist activists have organized themselves largely in the political
7


realm (Graeber, 2002) against neoliberalism and war (cf. Graeber 2002, 2007, 2009),
environmental destruction (cf. Gordon 2009), various forms of oppression and
hierarchy (cf. Olson 2009), as well as agitating and advocating numerous other causes
and banners (or horizontally structured groupings of activists that operate under
organizational names such as Earth First!, Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Black Cross or
any other networked banner). And while contemporary anarchism encompasses a
wide swath of political and environmental causes, its approach to political change and
resistance is especially pertinent to this thesis.
Central to the anarchist approach is practice. Anarchists are more defined by
the forms of practices they adopt, than they are by their beliefs in any singular
doctrine, theory or even ideology, understood in its formal sense. The anarchist
movement, states Graeber (2002), is not opposed to organization. It is about creating
new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of
organization are its ideology (emphasis original). This preoccupation with practice is
widespread in anarchist circles, so much so that practice in the form of distinct
processes and forms of organization have become not only an ideology in itself, but a
political culture of resistance.
Political culture in this sense is defined as a family of shared orientations
to doing and talking about politics, and to living everyday life (Gordon 2008, p 4).
Anarchist political culture is based on shared orientations, or principles and values,
that shape and sustain how activists go about doing, talking, and living in the here and
now. Anarchist practices such as egalitarianism, consensus based decision making and
direct action guide methods of organization to the degree to which it can be described
8


as a distinct culture.
Anarchist political culture is premised on mutual expectations as to how
political practice is to be organized and carried out; anarchist culture actually utilizes
techniques and strategies in accordance with those mutual expectations in the process
of creating and sustaining anarchist culture. For example, most people who are a part
of anarchist or anarchic political culture understand that if a collective house is to be
started, or an organization founded to oppose the WTO, CAFTA, or the local highway
expansion, it is likely to include any or all of the distinct markers of anarchist political
culture, such as consensus-run decision making, community based organizing, direct
action, DIY, and increasingly, ecological design.
While anarchist political culture contains mutually expectant techniques and
strategies of sustaining and maintaining culture, it lacks, especially throughout the
anarchsit literature, a comprehensive approach to sustainable land use that
permaculture is primarily concerned with. What is being demonstrated by those at
The Collective and throughout Denver's collective community, however, is that
anarchists and those engaged in anarchic-led approaches to daily life are beginning to
systematically employ permaculture design in their backyard gardens as a response to
growing ecological and social destabilization. Anarchist activist and intellectual, Uri
Gordon (2009), expounds on the growing importance of this phenomenon in the
anarchist milieu:
For anarchists and their allies, it will become increasingly important to be
involved in building independent, sustainable alternatives and community
self-sufficiency. The growing interest among anti-capitalists in
permaculture, natural building, and other aspects of practical ecology is an
encouraging move in this direction...Constructive direct action in this vein is
especially relevant in the advanced capitalist countries, where most
9


anarchists are located, since these are societies where both community ties
and basic skills have been thoroughly eroded. In both urban and rural
projects, the combination of self-sufficiency and egalitarian social relations
can amount to a powerful form of propaganda by the deed, displaying
attractive models that people can implement (p 257).
Apart from a powerful form of propaganda by the deed, which is powerful
indeed, the combination of ecological self-sufficiency and egalitarian social relations
is, as I argue in this thesis, an ongoing experimentation in the creation of an actual
permaculture, considered in its ecological and social aspects. Where permaculture
design is lacking in comprehensive techniques and strategies of creating and
sustaining culture, anarchism is lacking in a comprehensive land-use policy. Where
permaculture is developing increasingly complex and successful strategies for
creating self-regulating ecosystems, anarchic-led approaches are primarily engaged in
cultural approaches to not only political activism, but also in creating self-regulating,
community based social systems. The intersection between culture and the
environment, social systems and ecosystems, as well as the intersection of groups
engaging permaculture and also anarchic lead cultural approaches to social change is
the main theme of this thesis.
Through employment of ethnographic methods, I present research on a
specific community that exists within Denver, Colorado's DIY counterculture. This
community, referred to as (Denver's) collective community, is an alternative culture
engaged in anarchic forms of practice that are guided by values of self-organization,
egalitarianism, direct action and DIY. Utilizing this cultural/social practice, Denver's
collective community is creating self-regulating social systems. This collective social
project is combined with a growing knowledge and implementation of ecological
10


techniques and strategies inspired and informed by permaculture design and
philosophy. Therefore, I conclude that the beginnings of an actual urban Permaculture
are beginning to show itself in Denver; a Permaculture whose goal is the integration
of social systems and ecological systems into mutually beneficial, sustainable
systems.
I choose to label this ongoing experimentation in creating a permaculture as
just a beginning for numerous reasons. For starters, this project is quite literally in the
beginning stages, as I can tell from my experiences within this community over the
last 8 years. Gardening has always been somewhat of a staple in collective living, yet
the arrival of permaculture design as activism has only been visible in the last five
years. Also, collective houses aren't altogether permanent. Their existence tends to be
rather ephemeral due to external forces, and also internal instabilities. With the
exception of two collective houses that own their property, most often disband after
two years of existence, which is to say that collective houses aren't permanent
features in the collective community. Rather, they seem to form as quickly as they
disband.
In this vein, problems arise both socially and ecologically. Permaculture
which utilizes a strategy of planting mostly perennial species (species that return year
after year) in constructed ecosystems that evolve over time into the ideal form of a
self-sustaining forest gardenrequires stable land tenancy and considerable time.
From the social aspect, a hurdle arises in creating and sustaining lasting social
institutions required by such a project as permaculture. For example, very few in the
collective community, to echo Mollison's words above, are planting pecan or citrus
11


trees with the idea that they will not be cut down by their children's children. Just as
garden plots throughout the collective community are still planted with mostly annual
species, social values such as consensus, egalitarian organizing, and community-
building are generally not engaged with the idea of perpetuity or permanence. Rather,
these values and methods are largely used as a means to negotiate the here and now.
In defining what a permaculture actually is, I rely on two separate
approaches. The first approach is from two organizations involved in sustainable
development in Cuba, and also across the globe. The other definition of permaculture
comes from the activists and residents I studied. While permaculture as a design
strategy has been defined, redefined and expanded numerous times since its inception
in 1978, there is no set rubric or basic standard of what an existing Permaculture is or
isn't, aside from the integration of social systems with ecological systems in mutually
beneficial, sustainable relationships.
According to the Cuban organization, Fundacion Antonio Nunez Jimenez de
la Naturaleza y el Hombre (FANJNH 2002)a group engaged in urban permaculture
and sustainable development throughout Cubasustainable development is defined
as the demonstrated capacity of a society or system to function indefinitely and
independently, without failing due to the exhaustion of fundamental resources (p
39). In the eco-village movement, Gilman (1991) defines an eco-village as, a
human-scaled, full featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly
integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human
development, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.
The common element in both of these definitions are the ideas of
12


independence and perpetuity. In order for a society, a system, or human-scaled, full
feature settlement4 to be considered a sustainable development (read: a
Permaculture), it must be able to function and prosper independently5 into the
indefinite future. On the criterion of existing indefinitely, Denver's collective
community cannot be considered a sustainable development, and by extension, an
actual Permaculture. Yet the degree to which these communities are increasingly
independent rests in the notion that they are in the midst of developing self-
regulating social and ecological systems. It also rests in the creation of social and
ecological structures that facilitate growth in both areas. As will be demonstrated,
Denver's collective community is doing just this.
Another criterion defining an actual existing Permaculture comes from
Denver's collective community and also the permaculture literature. This criterion is
based on what is called a big P Permaculture perspective that asks of activists, in
the words of a resident at The Collective, what is the permaculture of this place?,
4 A 'full-featured settlement' is one in which all the major functions of normal living
- residence, food provision, manufacture, leisure, social life, and commerce are
plainly present and in balanced proportions (Gilman 1991), which is an indication to
its ability to be independent and self-sustaining.
5 Independent refers to the ability of a full-featured human settlement to be as self-
sustaining as possible in terms of resource production for human needs. It does not
refer to complete isolation, or political, social and even economic autarky because
these forms of independence are not necessarily concievable in the context of a
globalized society. Gilman admits that there are specialized services that each
individual ecovillage unit cannot fulfill such as hospitals or airports. Independence,
then, does not mean that eco-villages have to be fully self-sufficient or isolated from
the surrounding community... Yet with cooperation among villages, essentially any
large institution could be successfully run by clusters and networks, permitting a fully
functioning modem society to be mostly comprised of eco-village units.
13


what is the permaculture of my life? (personal communication, 5-27-10). Hence,
big P Permaculture is based on perceptions of activists themselves; perceptions that
enable individuals and communities to transcend and challenge the dominant
consumer culture that contributes to a conscious or unconscious conspiracy to keep
ourselves helpless (Mollison 1991, p 177). This big P Permaculture perspective is
demonstrated by perceptual or paradigmatic shifts of thinking found in the following
statement of a permaculture activist, Barnes (2008):
I will be happy to give a requiem for the nightlife, the hustle, the gleaming
technology, the grocery bills, the water bills, the path that I know is not
sustainable. It had its moments, but the perspective gained from the new
paradigm makes living the old life impossible for me. As the physicist
cannot go back to the Ptolemaic model of the universe revolving around the
Earth, the permaculturist cannot look at the status quo conceptual
framework of industrial society as even remotely sensible. Change becomes
a necessity, even if that threatens some.
Little p permaculture, in contrast, generally refers to specific design
techniques and strategies of permaculture, that when practiced in isolation from a
perceptual framework based on working with, rather than against nature (Mollison
1991, pi), and other Big P philosophical and ethical tenets, do not contribute to the
creation of a permanent culture or a permanent agriculture. Little p permaculture
does not entail a radical re-examination of the individual, the community, and the
world in terms of permanence through ecological and social integration. Nor does it
include philosophical dispositions of interconnection and cooperation between all
specieskey indicators of an actual Permaculture.6
In conclusion, Denver's collective community is not currently engaged in
creating communities that can exist indefinitely into the future. On this criterion of
6 From here forward, permaculture with a lower case p refers to
14


Permaculture, the community does not make the mark. In terms of independence,
however, the presence of self-regulating social systems shaped by anarchic led
approaches, combined with increasingly self-regulating ecological systems informed
by permaculture design, signifies a beginning in the creation of a self-sustaining,
permanent culture and agriculturein other words, an actual Permaculture. On the
criterion of the perceptual or paradigmatic shift required by the big P Permaculture
definition, the degree to which activists have internalized an ecocentric philosophy is
yet another indication that the beginning of an actual Permaculture is beginning to
reveal itself within the collective community as well.
Chapter outline
Chapter two is a review of the permaculture literature. I focus on specific
practices of ecological design, as well as the ethics, principles and philosophy that
guide these practices. The main areas I cover in this chapter, are four-fold: practice,
ethics, principles and philosophy. Specific examples of permaculture practicesheet
mulching and forest gardeningdemonstrate not just the technical and strategic
aspects of the practice, but also permaculture ethics, principles and philosophy in
action. Permaculture ethics consist of three creeds that guide design and also daily
life: earth care, people care and fair share. There are 12 permaculture design
principles, which consist of basic guidelines to ecological designsuch as observe
and interact, use and value diversity, and use edges and value the marginal, As
defined by co-founder of the term Permaculture, David Holmgren (2002).
Permaculture philosophy is centered on the eco-social intersection in that it
challenges the dominant paradigm of humanity's relationship to the natural world.
15


Where the paradigm of contemporary, dominant culture regards the natural world as a
separate entityas something to be dominatedpermaculture philosophy regards
humans as intimately and irrevocably connected to all other species and to the natural
world generally. Thus, our decisions and actions impact all other species on this
planet, and that our rightful place in nature is as a part of nature doing nature's work.
Many permaculturists understand this philosophical disposition as a mandate to
intervene in the natural world. This is carried out by creating ecosystems that are not
only self-regulating, but also are able to provide for the material needs of humans,
while simultaneously providing for the health of ecosystems through the process of
replication of natural ecosystem functions at the home garden or other scale.
Protection, preservation and conservation of naturally existing ecosystems are also
important to permaculturists.
The third chapter reviews the anarchist literature from a practice centric
approach. The focus throughout this chapter is on specific methods of organization
and forms of practiceor repertoires of actionthat together make up the anarchist
political culture. Anarchism is largely a political culture in that, ever since its
resurgence in the late 1990s, the movement has primarily organized itself in the
political realm (Graeber 2002). A clarifying and also cautionary note is given at the
beginning of this chapter. For purposes of clarity to the reader and also to avoid
inaccurately implicating residents of the collective community studied, it is important
to note that not all members of the collective community are anarchists (a label that
can attract the attention of various law enforcement agencies), yet many of them are
engaged in what can be described as anarchic social relations.
16


The literature chosen presents anarchism as a political culture striving to
reinvent daily life. This project has manifested globally, where international solidarity
has been anchored by networking among local groups, or tribes, of anarchist activists
interacting in more intimate, face-to-face settings. Other forms of practice include
maintaining egalitarian social relations through consensus, an ethic of direct action,
and prefigurative politics. This cultural form of prefigurative activism attempts to
emulate elements of a future society in the here and nowa form of practice labeled
as prefigurative (see Graeber 2009, Gordon 2008).
Chapter four is a presentation of my ethnographic research findings
regarding Denver's collective community and The Collective. I present evidence to
support the claim that Denver's collective community and The Collective are in the
process of experimenting with different cultural and ecological forms of expression
and resistance that can be described as the seed of an actual permaculture. This
permaculture-inspired project is heavily influenced by anarchist principles and values,
and increasingly, by permaculture design. This culture, I argue, is upheld by four
distinct values: community, egalitarianism, direct action/DIY and permaculture
design. Building off of the anarchist and permaculture literature reviews, the
ethnographic findings present an on-going subculture that is experimenting in social
and ecological integration that is premised on both permaculture and anarchists ideas
of self-regulation. I also find that ethical and philosophical tenets of the residents are
in line with both anarchist and permaculture ethics and philosophy.
The final analysis of this section examines the collective community's
project of cultural and ecological integration in the context of permaculture. Utilizing
17


the above definitions of permaculture, as well as insight taken from the review of the
literature, I conclude that while the collective community's attempts at permaculture
are lacking in key areas, such as the ability to exist indefinitely into the future,
evidence of their version of permaculture is found in the alternative culture they
practice from day to day, as well as in the alternative perceptions that many of the
radical residents hold and believe.
Methodology
The method of my research is designed to be as anarchic or radical as many
permaculture and anarchic activists themselves. From the beginning of this project, I
have attempted to employ a methodology that would correspond to the radical
permaculture groups that I was studying. The method embodies or mimics core
elements and principles of the activists themselves, and includes a somewhat
skeptical attitude toward the academy itself and its traditional scientific processes
(Gray, 2007). The reason for employing such an anarchic method is to avoid
betraying core principles of the movement.
In discussing anarchist methodologies, Ferrel (2009) suggests ways to
liberate inquiry from the suffocating authority of the dominant method, one in
which objective, truth-producing-tools are replicated ad-infinitum regardless of the
contextual particularities of the subject population being studied. These scientific
methods, according to Ferrel, produce a certain type of knowledge that is reified as
authoritative, even inevitable knowledge (pp 73-81). For this thesis, this approach
was ruled out almost immediately. Survey-heavy methods, statistical calculations,
regression analyses, I believe, would fail to grasp a contextual understandingthose
18


cultural, social, political, and symbolic meanings of a social movement on the ground,
in the here and now.
Ethnographic research, as a methodological approach, emerged as a
response. Participant observation was key in my data collection. Over the course of a
spring and summer I spent considerable time at The Collective, where my research
was focused. I observed housemeetings, full moon pizza parties, and participated in
helping maintain, in minute ways, The Collective's permaculture garden. Two
additional ethnographic methods were utilized: seven personal interviews and several
researcher-led discussion groups aided in solidifying and correcting my observations.
In addition to these tools, it is important to stress that I have eight years of lived
experience in these communities, which will be further explained below.
The findings of this thesis are presented as appreciative and nuanced,
subjective and suggestive, where understanding through these ethnographic methods
is presented as on-going critique, as a practical strategy for negotiating the next
moment of understanding (Ferrell 2009, p 73), and never as an epithet to a subject
population that, by definition and through practice, subverts objectivity through its
varied practices. Thus, a methodology that prides itself on subjectivity, as
ethnographic research often does, is perhaps the best approach in documenting this
radical movement. The goal of such methodology is designed to open up those
contextual understandings while also demonstrating one of permacultures and
anarchisms prominent cultural phenomena: practice.
As mentioned above, practice is a defining feature of permaculture and
other radical political ecologies or philosophies. Speaking to such philosophies, Gray
19


(2007) observes:
Bioregionalists emphasize the need for the bioregional idea to be defined through
practice, and to resist concrete definition and restrictive implications of finer
theoretical points. For this reason, bioregionalism welcomes connections with other
evolving grass-roots environmental philosophies including eco-anarchism, eco-
socialism, eco-feminism, deep ecology and permaculture.
Bearing in mind Greys observation, two methodological considerations are made.
First, a documentation of permaculture requires considerable attention to practice as
an inseparable element of the movement. Second, if accurate critique or theoretical
analysis is to be made, it must resist concrete definitions and restrictive theoretical
discussion. Thus, the aim of my research and corresponding theoretical analysis is not
to pigeonhole permaculture as being wholly defined as this or that, from now to
forever. Rather, theoretical analysis is engaged only as a point of departure, a method
of expanding, rather than restricting, conceptions of what permaculture is and what it
means.
JeffFerrel is a scholar of urban resistance movements who similarly calls on
scholars to walk and live among the communities they study, and to discard formal
methods in search of the more open-ended knowledge that comes from ethnographic
field-work. In Ferrels call for liberating inquiry from the authority of the dominant
method, he also derides those researchers who, for purposes of posterity to scientific
objectivism, decline to disclose a deep understanding of, not to mention immersion
in, the lives of those who are their focus (77). Once the aura of scientific objectivism
is demystified, emotional affinity developed through complete immersion into the
subject population becomes a strength, rather than a hindrance, to the production of
deeper understanding. This immersion is a process whereby the researcher
20


intentionally loses themselves in the subject population so that new meanings and
emotions (p 80) may be uncovered, considered and incorporated into the
understandings being presented. It is this immersion that I have undertaken, albeit not
exclusively for research purposes.
My understanding of permaculture and anarchist activism has developed
over the last eight years of my life as an anarchist and eventual permaculture activist.
Throughout this time, I have helped start four separate collectives, ranging in size
from six to seventeen people. Utilizing permaculture design ethics and principles
increasingly became a central focus to the houses we started, as well as anarchic
cultural approaches to everyday life. From the beginning, my immersion was a
personal political choice, a conscious response to a global economic and political
systems I feltand still feelis wrought with social and ecological imbalances
teetering on destruction. It has only been these last three years that I have combined
my personal and intellectual lives into an academic pursuit.
As I have increasingly worked to convert my personal understandings,
relationships and experiences into scholarship to be shared with outside readers, I
have remained attentive to ethical obligations not to violate any confidences or put
any research subjects at risk to harm due to my scholarly work. To this end, I de-
emphasize, in all of my ethnographic reporting, to the point of near complete
elimination, personal identifiers. In turn, I emphasize the movement as a whole: my
research presents radical permaculture as a movement, as a collective ensemble of
hopes, dreams and actions. I do not include anywhere in my research personal
identifiers such as names, affiliations, or even phenotypic characteristics. This
21


strategy is vital in terms of protecting the identities of individuals who may attract the
attention of certain law enforcement agencies due to their radical associations.
While I could never, even hypothetically, completely separate my past lived
experiences from the ongoing research that serves as the backbone for this thesis, I
have exercised considerable intent to distinguish between lived experiences as a
permaculture and anarchist activist in my own right, and the experiences and
knowledge I have gained more recently as I have become a self-conscious scholar
of the movement. I explicitly label all of my experiences and gained insights based
on my differing personas, as they appear in my research. Because I am not claiming
objectivity in a quest for authoritative knowledge, my eight years of experience living
in this community emerge as a methodological strength rather than a weakness. For
most ethnographers, the process of becoming acquainted with a subject population
takes years. My research was able to forego those early years where considerable
energy is spent in discerning the nature or essence of the community under study.
Thus I was able more quickly to focus on the more nuanced ideas contained within or
about the movement, especially deeper theoretical ideas, and even notions of
spirituality.
Conclusion
There is no averting our eyes, industrial civilization is coming down,
warns anarchist activist and scholar, Uri Gordon (2009, p 249). From rising energy
prices, erratic weather patterns, decreasing fertility of soil and loss of topsoil, global
food shortages, decline in biodiversity and extinction rates at 10,000 times higher
than average, Gordon's dark tidings, are not, he insists, the irrational rantings of a
22


doom-crying fringe (p 249). However much the forces of global capitalism attempt
to curb growing ecological destructioneither through financial speculation or hi-
tech intervention (p 249), public relations campaigns or cooption of ecological and
environmental movements (pp 251-52)these forces will not succeed due to the fact
that what we are encountering is the final confrontation between neoliberal
capitalism's need for infinite growth and the finite resources of a single planet (p
249). Anarchists and their allies are fighting back in unusual ways.
Through living and studying within anarchic communities increasingly
experimenting with permaculture design, I have come to understand the potential
significance of these movements as a response to growing ecological destruction.
Spurred by what many in these movements and milieus view as a global system
incapable of continuing indefinitely, the approach is local and direct. I have come to
understand them as prototypic or prefigurative models (Graeber 2009, p 210,
Gordon 2008, pp 34-40) of a future society based on anarchic and permaculture
principles and values. In analyzing these models of a potential future society, practice,
both social and ecological, appears prominently throughout the thesis: permaculture
design, egalitarian decision-making, direct democracy, and direct action all as forms
of existing and developing practices. Coexisting with practice is perceptions of
activists that coincide with the philosophy of permaculture: eco-social cooperation as
opposed to domination, connection and interdependence of all species, and even
spiritual connections to land and place.
23


CHAPTER II
PERMACULTURE AS ECOLOGICAL ACTIVISM
This chapter analyzes two specific permaculture practices that exemplify the
permaculture design concept as a whole: sheet mulching and forest gardening. I will
examine how these practices correspond to the broader area of permaculture ethics,
principles and philosophy. Citing Giddens, Purdue (2000) states, Permaculture is an
attempt to generate an entire philosophy and life politics from principles of
sustainable gardening (p 156). Through explication of the technical and strategic
aspects of sheet mulching and forest gardening, combined with the ethical, principled
and philosophical aspects of permaculture, a broader picture of humanities'
relationship to the natural environment will emerge; a role that is as unique as it is
central to the permaculture movement.
Each section begins with an explanation of the practice from its technical and
strategic aspects. Permaculture principles, ethics and philosophy are then included for
each practice. The third section of this chapter then takes the philosophical
underpinnings of these practices and applies it to new findings in the anthropological,
archaeological and ethno-botanical sciences, drawing on the insights of Thomas
Mann and various permaculture activists.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine the ecological aspects of what is
required in order for an actual permaculture to exist, as it is presented in the
permaculture literature. Chapter 3 will analyze the cultural aspects of a distinctly
24


radical/anarchist literature that is slowly beginning to incorporate permaculture
techniques into its practical repertoire. Together, these chapters present two
fundamental influences that shape the daily lives of activists and residents in Denver's
collective community.
Section 1
Sheet-mulching
Humans can create soil faster than nature can, boasted a long-time
permaculture teacher and social activist (Personal communication 6-25-10). Creating
soil is the strategic goal of sheet-mulching, and sheet mulching is the technique to
achieve that goal of creating soil where none exists or where the soil is too poor in
quality to sustain healthy plants and thus bountiful harvests (Kellogg & Pettigrew
2008, p 117). Creating healthy soil through sheet mulching takes on increased
importance in urban environments where most soil or dirt tends to be polluted,
compacted and sparse, if it is not already paved over.
I include sheet mulching in this section on permaculture practice because
sheet-mulching is a technique that demonstrates a permaculture design method in
action: observing and replicating life systems in order to provide for the needs of
humans and ecosystems. Observing and understanding how nature worksin this
case, how a forest creates soiland then replicating that process by layering a
combination of carbonic and nitrogenous materials is an effective way to kick start
the foundation of a good permaculture garden. For many people, sheet mulching is
their first introduction to permaculture gardening. Some permaculturists note that
sheet mulching has almost become synonymous with permaculture itself, for better or
25


worse (Holmgren 2002, p 253).
Sheet mulching, however, like all strategies that are worthy of the name
permaculture, is not necessarily permaculture in and of itself. Permaculture is not a
singular technique nor strategy but an integrated design process where techniques and
strategies are engaged according to permaculture principles, ethics and philosophy.
Mark Shepard (2011), an accomplished agro-forester, permaculturist and community
organizer, expresses, in a rather resentful tone, the shortsightedness that is indicative
of technique or strategy-driven approaches as opposed to an integrated, holistic
design process whose end goal is to create permanent agriculture and culture:
Ninety percent of certified permaculture designers whom I have
encountered are not doing it. They're playing at the edges and fooling themselves.
They're not creating a different culture; they're not growing their own food. Like
using the 55-gallon rain barrel, they deceive themselves by thinking that by toying
with inadequately designed rainwater collection systems, they have obtained
absolution and don't have to strive to create permaculture (p. 33).
The point of Shepard's resentment is that permaculture is larger than sheet
mulching, much more intensive than (poorly designed) rain-water collection, and in
the end involves new methods of thinking, acting and feeling that go beyond singular
techniques. These singular techniques can be examples of what a Denver activist calls
little p permaculture, if they are implemented without corresponding permaculture
principles, ethics and philosophy. Big P Permaculture, however, involves the actual
creation of new and permanent cultures and agricultures (personal communication 5-
27-10). In Shepard's words, practice should strive to create Permaculture (emphasis
mine, p. 33). Shepard continues in a mocking tone: Thirty-five thousand gallons of
rain falls off my roof [every year] but I want to hold fast to the cute idea that a little
5 5-gallon barrel will hold it all and I can imagine I've saved the world. That's simply
26


poor design and living through your concepts rather than your observations (p. 33).
What follows in this paper, then, is a brief description of sheet mulching
from a technical and strategic aspect, with a full understanding that this single
technique can never be more than a small slice of actual permaculture practice. A
discussion of sheet-mulching that incorporates applicable permaculture principles,
ethics and philosophy is also included so that sheet mulching is more fully understood
from both a little p and big P perspective.
The first step of sheet mulching is collecting all of the various materials.
This process generally involves a variety of strategies like using as many on-site
resources as possible, such as all of the organic matter from last year's garden;
scavenging or dumpstering for items like cardboard, newspaper or even discarded
produce for compost; collecting and storing material like your neighborhood's leaves
in the fall, or mulch from a fallen tree; and even purchasing material like manure
from a local equestrian center or straw from a nearby farm.
The execution of sheet mulching takes place after the actual plan or
blueprint of the garden is complete, and the location of the garden beds has been
sketched in the dirt with a twig or any other system of designation. The end goal in
sheet-mulching is to build up your garden beds until they're six to 12 inches thick by
layering carbon (which is anything dead that used to be alive, often referred to as your
browns: hay, woody mulch, cardboard, newspaper etc.) and nitrogen (generally
your greens but nitrogenous materials also include manure, produce or organic
fertilizers). After the initial layering of your carbonic and nitrogenous materials, a
sheet-mulched bed is ready to be planted in. However, many manuals suggest varying
27


amounts of time of incubation before planting.
Sheet-mulching is a no-till and even no work method, meaning that
instead of tilling, digging, pulling up or turning over the ground, the first layer of the
mulch will sit directly on top of whatever vegetation is therewhether sod, weeds or
just plain dirt. In my experiences with sheet mulching, this is perhaps the most novel,
and also the most satisfying aspect of the practice. It is novel in that people don't
really trust that the method can fully suppress a sodden yard or a bramble of wayward
weeds. If done correctly, it can. The practice is satisfying in that sheet mulching,
especially over lawn is an act, a direct action one could say, of suppressing what is
wasteful by recycling it into what will eventually become, through a process of
decomposition, fertilizer for a productive garden soil.
Despite the intense planning and execution of the initial layering, sheet-
mulching is also a no-work technique, that if designed and maintained correctly,
will require less and less work as the soil matures from season to season. The Earth
Voice: Green Living Network website describes sheet mulching in this way:
'No-Work' refers more to the elimination of many back breaking processes
(financially and literally) that are commonly associated with
gardening/agricultural growing. The long-term benefit of building up
permanent and successive no-till beds and returning all organic matter back
to the beds ensures less work each year.
By taking steps to ensure less work each year, extensive inputs of energy such as
materials, labor, and other resources are minimized, while outputs are ideally
maximized: greens, fruits, grains and vegetables, beauty and greenery, even water and
air purification (Hart 1991, p 12, 51). This no work or do nothing (cf Fukuoka
1986, p 15-18) approach illustrates a core principle and philosophy of permaculture
28


activism: The more in line a designed agricultural system is with naturally occurring
ecosystems, the more efficient, self-sufficient, and thus more abundant it becomes: If
gentle measures such as spreading straw and sowing clover are practiced, instead of
using man-made chemicals and machinery to wage a war of annihilation, then the
environment will move back toward its natural balance and even troublesome weeds
can be brought under control (Fukuoka 1986, p 36). So it is that in permaculture,
The most important permaculture design tool is a hammock (Oasis Design). Purdue
(2000) echoes this sentiment: Permaculture claims to be a solution to the Hobsons
choice of either ecologically damaging industrial agriculture or the backbreaking
work of traditional peasant agriculture (p 17).
This is a broad overview of the sheet mulching technique with a smattering
of principles and philosophy. From the purely practical aspect, sheet mulching is not
necessarily a form of permaculture in and of itself. To reiterate Shepards argument
(discussed above), to engage in such a technique and call it permaculture is simply
tom-foolery. Even from the little p perspective, sheet mulching only as a technique
barely makes the little p permaculture mark. Detached from permaculture design
principles, ethical and philosophical foundations, sheet mulching is just another
gardening technique.
So, the question must be asked, how would the technique of sheet-mulching
attain big P permaculture status? The answer, in part, is largely based on the
conscious awareness on the part of activists. Sheet mulching attains big P status
when it is but one technique of a holistic systems design approach that incorporates
permaculture design principles, ethics and philosophy. It attains big P status when,
29


in the words of Shepard, it is implemented as a means of creating actual
Permaculture.
A quick application of these big P elements, partially covered in the
description of the technique above, would look something like this. Starting with the
permaculture design principleswhich are basic, principled approaches to
permaculture designas established by co-founder of permaculture, David
Holmgren (2002 p viii)sheet mulching can adhere to at least seven different
principles. The 1st principle is Observe and interact: Sheet mulching started when
permaculturists first observed soil formation in the forest, and then interacted by
replicating that process at the home-garden or other scale. Also important here is that
the gardening site has been observed for some time so that the gardener interacts with
her environment effectively. The second permaculture design principle, Catch and
store energy, applies easily because the materials used for the actual layering of the
mulch are forms of embodied energy that are collected (caught) and implemented or
stored in the soil. Other principles that apply include principle 5: Use and value
renewable resources and services; principle 6: Produce no waste; and principle 12:
Creatively use and respond to change. This quick application of the principles is by
no means exhaustive. Other principles may or may not apply in different cultural or
ecological contexts. Further, the more an activist gardener is aware of these design
principles in relation to any specific technique like sheet mulching, the more these
techniques are applied with a conscious goal of creating true permaculture. The
permaculture design principles, however, are not the only marker of big P
permaculture.
30


The ethical foundation of permaculture is also a necessary marker of the
big P. Earth care, people care and fair share, permaculture's three part ethical creed,
can be applied in much the same fashion as the principles above. Big P
permaculture is based on the conscious awareness and application of these ethics
during the design process. One example of sheet mulching as a form of principled
earth care is that, in order to fulfill the strategic goal of healthy, productive soil, it
reuses mostly waste products (newspaper, cardboard, manure) that would otherwise
end in a toxic and polluting landfill. Sheet mulching as people care is fairly straight-
forward as well. By engaging a no-work or do nothing technique, human labor is
saved, while beneficial outputs are maximized. People care also applies in that the
creation of healthy, productive soil is a necessary element in sustaining healthy,
productive people. The documentary, The Gerson Miracle: A Film attempts to
document Dr. Gerson's experiences in curing cancer using just such a holistic,
ecological common sense approach:
The soil, and all that grows in it, is not something distant from us, but must
be regarded as our external metabolism, which produces the nutrients for
our internal metabolism. Therefore, the soil must be cared for properly. It
must not be depleted or poisoned (sic) Otherwise, changes will result in
serious degenerative diseases in animals and humans (as quoted by Saul
2004).
Whether or not any one believes that soil is our external metabolism, or in Dr.
Gerson's ability to cure cancer, it defies common sense (ecological or otherwise) to
believe that there isn't a direct connection between healthy soil and healthy people,
between caring for soil and care for people.
The third permaculture ethic, fair share, also stated as share the surplus,
applies in that if you have healthy, productive soil that requires little labor to
31


maintain, the more food will be grown and time saved. Thus, the more surplus there is
to share. Again, this ethical application is not exhaustive. There are other and more or
less intricate ways of incorporating permacultures ethical creed into permaculture
design.
From a philosophical understanding, I expand on the above description of
the no-work or do-nothing aspect of sheet mulching. Masanobu Fukuoka (1986)
first came up with the do-nothing concept in his experiments with simple farming
in Japan. In his own words, simple farming is, Farming as simply as possible within
and in cooperation with the natural environment, rather than the modem approach of
applying increasingly complex techniques to remake nature entirely for the benefit of
human beings (p 15). Fukuoka shows that the further humans deviate from nature's
natural cycles, usually through application of increasingly complex industrial
practices (e.g. fertilizers, genetic engineering, large machinery), the more problems
arise which humans seek to undo using the same increasingly complex industrial
practices that created the problem in the first place (p 18). Do nothing, Fukuoka
advises, because crops grow themselves, they should not have to be grown. I had
acted in the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course.
The practical lesson to be learned from Fukuoka's philosophy of do-
nothing is simple: the more that a food production system replicates naturally
occurring ecosystem functions and cycles, the less labor, machinery, and scientific
knowledge is required for the maintenance of that system. The resultant approach of
working with nature as opposed to working against nature will increase a systems
32


t "j
yield. Such a complex, philosophical understanding of nature, its ecosystems and
cycles is nothing but a big P understanding. Sheet mulching, if those engaging this
technique manage it correctly, demonstrates this philosophy splendidly.
The do-nothing philosophy is prominent in the permaculture literature
despite the fact that permaculture design requires that humans do something in the
way of intervening in nature. Indeed, permaculturists alter the land and intervene in
the natural environment in numerous and sometimes drastic ways: whether through
sheet mulching, constructing self-regulating forest gardens, and maximizing humans
beneficial impact on the land through rigorous land management policies like
ecological restoration (Toensmeier: Indigenous management). While Fukuoka's do-
nothing philosophy translates into a literal command, the permaculture literature
interprets this philosophically. In the words of cofounder of permaculture, Mollison,
Fukuoka, in his book The One Straw Revolution, has perhaps best stated the
basic philosophy of permaculture. In brief, it is a philosophy of working
with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation
rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and
animals in all of their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-
product system (Mollison 1991, p 1).
From a strategic perspective, the do nothing philosophy does not, by any
means, rule out humans intervening in nature, and in the process drastically altering
it, as the following section will demonstrate. But intervention is carried out according
to the imperative of working with nature through replication of naturally occuring
ecosystem functions. Furkuoka, who himself is a rice and grain farmer, participates in 7
7 Fukuoka claims his simple farming method to be as productive if not more so than industrial
farming practices: With this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer and
no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese
farm. The proof is ripening right before our eyes (p 3).
33


interveneing in nature, and therefore participates in changing nature, and in co-
evolving with it through the domestication of crops. If designed correctly, however,
intervention in nature will mimic or replicate naturally occuring ecosystem functions
so that a constructed ecosystem will become as self-regulating as possible. The
strategic goal of a self-regulating ecosystem, then, requires little in the way of human
interference or interaction. The actual goal is to do as little as possible, or in other
words, do nothing.
Section 2:
Forest Gardening
The forest is vital in the permaculture movement considered in its little p
and big P aspects. According to Purdue (2000), It is the image of the ecologically
efficient forest garden that powers their political project of designing sustainable
social and environmental systems (p 156). Ever since its inception, permaculture
activists have found inspiration and solutions in the forest's myriad life-giving
phenomena and services, its beauty, intelligence and resiliency. Commenting on the
incessant dynamic happenings of the forest, Hart (1991) observes that one cannot
resist the conclusion that creative intelligences of a very high order are at work,
continually seeking ever more refined and practical solutions to life's basic problems,
but also determined to create beauty for its own sake (p 14). It is no coincidence that
many of the permaculture techniques, strategies and even principles and philosophies
are culled from observations of the forest ecosystem. Hart (1991), the first to
document his experiments with forest gardening in a temperate climate (Jacke,
Toensmeier 2005, p 5) continues: The forest is not a mere haphazard conglomeration
34


of plants and animals but an enormously complex, self-sufficient, self-recycling, self-
fertilizing, and self-watering organism, which takes nothing from outside itself, but
confers innumerable benefits on all forms of life (p. 12). These benefits include
oxygen, the transpiration of water through its abundant foliage to make rain, while
providing niches for animals of all sizes (pp 12, 51). The forest, no doubt, is an
ideal manifestation of the self-sustaining ecosystems that permaculture activists
replicate through the practice of forest-gardening.
Forest gardening is variously referred to as edible forest gardening (Jacke,
Toensmeier 2005), agroforestry (Hart 1991, p xiii); homegardens (Hart 1991, p xv;
Hemenway 2004, p 20), and of course, permaculture (Hart 1991, p xiii; Jacke,
Toensmeier 2005). The practice is not only a permaculture technique and strategy, it
is also an ethical and philosophical approach to human development from which
emerges a radical approach to humanity's roles and responsibilities in regards to the
natural world. Jacke and Toensmeier (2005), in the first comprehensive North
American edible forest gardening manual, state, Edible forest gardening is not
necessarily gardening in the forest. It is gardening like the forest (p 2). They
continue on their website:
As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, The ultimate goal of farming is not the
growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings. How
we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is
not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new
ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening
gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the
planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us
take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature's work, rather than as
separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world (Jacke,
Toensmeier).
Gardening like the forest, is not just a means by which gardeners manage a plot of
35


land or increase yields, but it is a practice where activists actually become an integral,
functioning and participatory component of the ecosystems they inhabit. This is a
major tenant of the philosophy that gardening like the forest imparts on those who
engage in the practice: Human's rightful place is as a part of nature doing nature's
work.
In this section I will explore the practice of forest gardening from two main
aspects. First, I will continue to define the term forest gardening from its technical
and ecological aspects. From this aspect, forest gardening increases in complexity as
ecological theory enters the mix. Where the technique of sheet mulching can be
described in a few pages, forest gardening is far more complex, requiring intense
explication of what is, ultimately, a holistic systems design approach that uses the
science of ecology theory as its reference point. Jacke and Toensmeier's, Edible forest
gardens: Ecological vision and theory for temperate climate permaculture, for
example, stretches over 1,000 pages of two volumes, in text book format. There are
numerous other books premised on the theory and practice of forest gardening as
well.
Needless to say, I will be giving only a cursory glance into the technical
aspect and ecological theory of forest gardening. Following this definition is an
exploration of forest gardening philosophythe philosophy that arises from the forest
as both technical guide and also as a source of profound inspiration, spiritual and
otherwise. The two main tenets of the forest garden philosophy I will be exploring are
mutual aid and the radical worldview of humans in nature.
In order to define more fully the forest garden concept, Jacke and
36


Toensmeier (2005) present a modified version (from Soule and Piper) of the Nature-
Agriculture Continuum (pp. 28-29). Placed on opposing sides of the continuum,
Nature (i.e. the forest) is shown as more resilient and thus less fragile than
agriculture, with a higher occurrence of diversity and also a higher occurrence of
functional interconnection. In addition to these beneficial aspects of Nature, it
also requires less to no labor to sustain. The Agriculture (i.e. modem agriculture)
pole of the continuum is shown as diametrically opposite in every aspect, including
food production: The saving grace is that modem agriculture produces a lot of food
per acreas long as fossil fuels remain available (p 29).
Nature and natural forests, while far more ecologically sound across the
board, do not produce as much food as modem agriculture, and, one surmises, enough
to feed the growing global population. The underlying conclusion of the authors is
that forest gardening's starting point is on the nature end of the Nature-Agriculture
Continuum where food production is integrated into the system by using or
mimicking nature's resilient ecosystem functions and its diverse ecosystem structures
(p 28). Organic agriculture, in comparison, uses modem agriculture as its conceptual
base (p 29): Organic agriculture attempts to move agriculture toward the 'nature' end
of the continuum, maintaining high food yields while reducing negative
characteristics. Forest gardening starts at nature's end and attempts to increase yields
while maintaining all of nature's desirable qualities (p 28).
Using natureor more specifically the forestas a template or conceptual
base, forest gardening mimics the ecological functions and structures that naturally
exist and are successful in natural, forested habitats. Species that are useful to humans
37


(for food, fiber, raw materials, nutrients, beauty, etc), and to ecosystems (sociability,
diverse ecosystem functions, etc) are chosen and then applied to fulfill these same
functions within the constructed forest garden. This phenomenon of mimicry is based
on the science of ecology which attempts, to understand the pattern of relationships
that make up the forest, so we can create a similar pattern of relationships called a
forest garden (Jacke and Toensmeier 2005, p 26).
Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) set forth three basic assumptions that are
derived from this study of pattern relationships established by ecology science. The
first is that every organism on the earth is intimately and irrevocably connected to
every other and to the nonliving elements of the planet. Next is the idea, that the
structure of ecosystems gives them stability and resilience. These structures are not
only the physical manifestations that plants create and/or use to grow and flourish, but
they are also invisible networks as well, because they arise from the relationships
between species, and between species and their environment. This invisibility refers
in part to a plant's sociability or functional interconnection, or its capacity to
beneficially relate, grow and evolve with other species. Last is the idea that
ecosystems change discontinuously, where discontinuous change means that
periods of stability may be followed by major transformations in short order at any
scale in time or space (p 26). Forest gardening and permaculture by extension, relies
heavily on the science of ecology, on the study of pattern relationships,
interconnection and interdependence of all species as a means to provide for the
health and resilience of all people and ecosystems involved.
The practice of forest gardening attempts to emulate the ecosystem
38


functions of naturally occurring ecosystems. Ecosystem functions include resilience,
functional interconnection, production of oxygen, water, food, fiber, nutrients, raw
materials, and countless more. While species to be incorporated in the forest garden
are chosen primarily for their benefit to humans, this is by no means an exhaustive
criterion. Species are also chosen so that functional interconnection or sociability is
maximized, regardless of whether or not a species contributes directly to the benefit
of humans. In order to maximize functional interconnection between species, species
are chosen that are known to be sociable, i.e. cooperative. Finding plants that can
live together without competing or that actually cooperate with each other (Jacke
and Toensmeier 2005, p 32), reduces competition for resources and thus maximizes
the plant's health and yield. Another key component of mimicking naturally occurring
ecosystem functions is planting perennial species, or species that return in the spring
with no need of replanting. This not only reduces labor, but it mimics the self-
replenishing function of the forest (p 49).
Forest garden structure is also key in building a forest garden. Just as the
forest grows across multiple spatial planes, a productive and space-efficient forest
garden does the same. These spatial planes are often referred to in permaculture as
stories. Hart (1991) identified and used seven stories of food production in his
version of forest gardening: canopy, low-tree layer, shrub layer, herbaceous layer,
vertical layer, groundcover layer, and the rhizosphere layer (p 51). Seven stories of a
forest garden are not required, however, and the actual construction of forest gardens
varies widely in this regard. Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) set forth two classification
systems of counting stories that vary in number from four to seven stories, depending
39


largely on the preference of the individual and also access to space (p 69). In parts of
southeastern Nigeria, with what is believed to be a 1,000 year practice of forest-
gardening, as many as nine distinct stories have been documented in what are called
compound farms: a complex agroforestry system that maximizes space and also
outputs of edible, medicinal and fiber-laden foods and other necessities for living
(Hart 1991, p 117).
From the functional and structural aspects, then, forest gardening is a
technique of planting mostly perennial species of plants together in mutually
beneficial relationships, or guilds and polycultures (Jacke and Toensmeier 2005 pp
167-171). The strategic goal is a functioning ecosystem that is capable, as much as
possible, of the self-sustaining functions listed above. Plant species are chosen
because of their usefulness to humans (people care), to other species in ensuring the
resilience of the whole ecosystem (earth care), as well as for their capability of
growing through many different spatial planes to create a multi-storied, intensive
agricultural ecosystem that requires minimal space, minimal labor, and maximum
yields of life sustaining services (share the surplus).
While the forest is largely a technical and strategic guide for
permaculturists, incorporating as it does ecological theory coupled with a holistic
design process, it is also the source of an increasingly developed ecological
philosophy of the world and humanity's roles therein. For advanced or big P
permaculturists, in fact, the practice of forest-gardening and deeper ecological
philosophy cannot be separated. In the words of Berry in the introduction to Fukuoka
(1986): This book is valuable to us because it is at once practical and philosophical
40


(emphasis original, p xi). Jacke and Toensmeier's (2005) echo this concept when they
claim: How we garden reflects our worldview. In terms of the philosophical
worldview reflected in forest gardening processes, it is meaningful that the forest at
any given moment, as seen through the observant gaze of the permaculturist, is a
scene of complex, interconnected and cooperative relationships that create a sum that
is bigger than its parts. And while competition is also an undeniable occurrence in the
forest, permaculturists, in designing and creating their forest gardens, seek to
minimize competition while maximizing those relationships that are mutually
beneficial and cooperative. All of this is to say that cooperation, symbiosis and
mutual aid are not only strategic goals of forest gardening, but are also philosophical
views of how humans should treat each other and their surrounding ecosystems.
This cooperative element of ecosystems applies not just to forest garden
design, but to humans in nature as well. Just as flowering plants rely on bees to
pollinate, and bees rely on flowering plants for nectar, humans rely on ecosystems for
life giving systems, and ecosystems rely on humans for beneficial, non-destructive
design and management. As the science of ecology demonstrates that all living things
are intimately connected to another, humans as a species are not exempt from this
intimate and irrevocable connection. Humans are a part of nature; we are inextricable
components of natural ecology, just like any other species. So instead of competing
with nature, attempting to control it, and in the process destroy it (see Fukuoka 1986),
permaculturists seek to cooperate with nature by providing for the health of as many
species as we possibly can. This philosophy of interconnection and cooperation,
culled from observations of the forest and natural systems, brings with it enormous
41


responsibility towards maintaining the health of not just humans, but large swaths of
the earth's ecosystems and its species as well.
Though humans are part of the surrounding eco-system, they are also in a
unique position of destructive or constructive power in that eco-system. For better or
worse, writes Charles Mann (2002) in a magazine article titled 1491,8 humankind is
a keystone species everywhere. A keystone species earns the title because they
[affect] the survival and abundance of many other species (Wilson quoted in Mann
2002), or in the words of Jacke and Toensmeier (2005), Our actions and inactions
are primary determinants of ecosystem health and evolution (p 24). Humans as a
keystone species, whether humans are aware of this fact or not, affect nearly every
aspect of this planet's ecological cycles, the fate of its species, and consequently its
life-giving functions and structures. For permaculturists, such a revelation unearths
(or perhaps confirms) the dangers of the current paradigm that contemporary
humankind can only ignore at their own peril: continue on in destructive ignorance of
the sheer impact of our decisions and lifestyles on most other life forms on this
planet, or recognize the fact that we are a keystone species, which entails the
responsibility of designing non-polluting, regenerating systems that work with other
species and entire ecosystems in mutually beneficial relationships.
In his book bearing the same title, 1491. which attempts to analyze a
growing body of data in the hard sciences, Mann (2004) states this prospect
eloquently: Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modem nations must
do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in
8 1491 refers to the nature of humankind before Columbus set foot on the North
American continent.
42


1491, they will have to create the world's largest garden (p 326). What Mann is
suggesting is that humans are capable of successfully managing ecosystems on an
immense scale. Drawing evidence for his argument from archeological,
anthropological and ethno-botanical literature and interviews, he asserts that as a
species, humans have been engaged in terraforming (or landscaping on a massive
scale) vast expanses of land for thousands of years through use of fire, earth works,
irrigation systems and especially varying forms of forest gardening (to mention but a
few techniques). Native Americans, when Columbus first set foot on the continent,
writes Mann, had been managing their environment for thousands of years...They
made mistakes. But by and large they modified their landscapes in stable, supple,
resilient ways (Mann 2004, p 314-315).
This kind of research is increasingly heralded by a growing number of
permaculturists, and understandably so. It affirms their world view of humans as
ecological stewards intimately connected to all life. Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) are
eager to bear the good news regarding indigenous peoples on this continent pre
Colombus: The humans and the forest were coevolving, mutually supporting
participants in each other's lives (p 24). Hemenway (2004) writing in the
Permaculture Activist Magazine, states,
The indigenous people of the Americas were master terraformers, using a
hard-learned understanding of ecological processes to preserve the
fundamental integrity of natural systems while utterly transforming the land
into a place where humans belonged and could thrive. They were truly a part
of nature, and likely did not make a distinction, as environmentalist do,
between land where people belonged and land where we do not (p 22).
The extent to which indigenous peoples terraformed their environment is
astounding: Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the
43


continental United States... (320) explains Mann. Increasing evidence and also
increasing consensus within the hard sciences regarding the mother of all forests, the
Amazon, is leading to the assumption that the Amazon is largely, if not completely, a
human artifact. Quoting Stahl, an anthropologist from the State University of New
York, Binghamton, Mann writes 'lots' of researchers believe that 'what the eco-
imagery would like to picture as a pristine, untouched Urwelt [primeval forest] in fact
has been managed by people for millennia.' Quoting Erickson, an archeologist from
the University of Pennsylvania, The phrase 'built environment' ... 'applies to most, if
not all, Neotropical landscapes' (p 306). Mann continues: 'Landscape,' in this case,
is meant exactlyAmazonian Indians literally created the ground beneath their feet
(306). In other words, vast expanses of the Amazon forest are believed to be
incredibly immense forest gardens that indigenous peoples intentionally created,
cultivated and cared for. Whether or not Mann and the scholars he cites are correct in
their assumptions of the Amazon forest as a human artifact, this work has created a
stir in the permaculture movement.
Foardeners, farmers, forest gardeners and permaculturists pushing for a
more just, sustainable, and ecologically centered world, this evidence is not only
increasingly embraced, but it is in this embrace that the paradigm of humans as
nature, of humans as an integral and connected component to the natural world
emergesbringing with it renewed and immense responsibility. By recognizing that
humans are a keystone species, it is understood that we are inextricably bound to the
same ecological forces and processes of other species. To echo Mann's words, this
recognition then requires, for our own survival, that we create the world's largest
44


forest garden.
Conclusion
Permaculture is a movement that aims to provide individuals and
communities with the necessary techniques and strategies that enable them to provide
for their own material well-being through the creation and maintenance of
regenerative, self-regulating ecosystems. Sheet mulching and forest gardening
represent two such technical and strategic approaches in this vein, and there exist
countless other techniques and strategies within the permaculture literature that if
practiced, observed and understood well enough, could go a long way in empowering
individuals and communities in their efforts to attain self-sufficiency and self-
regulation. Permaculture ethics, principles and philosophy ideally, but not always,
inform these technical and strategic efforts. Here there exists an alternative worldview
of humans and their relationship to the environment that is one of steward, not
consumer, one of inclusion and integration, not separation and destruction. And while
many may view permaculture as too idealist (cf Purdue 2000), the anthropological
record is leaning toward the idea that humans have been creating self-generating
ecosystems that provide for the health and well-being of humans and the earth for
millennia
From the ecological/agricultural aspect of permaculture, practice continues
to become more comprehensive in its approach, knowledgeable in its understandings
of ecosystems and ecology, and subsequently more developed and successful as a
means of providing for the material needs of humans and also the health of
ecosystems. The growing permaculture literature is a testament to this fact. The social
45


or cultural aspect of permaculture, in contrast, remains largely underdeveloped in
the literature. This underdevelopment is in part due to permaculture's insistence on
contextual approaches to sustainable land use. Those engaged in permaculture
activism understand that culture varies considerably, including distinct relationships
to, and understandings of, the natural world. Nature does not change, writes
Fukuoka (1986) in commenting on Japan's varying attitudes towards his natural
farming approach, although the way of viewing nature invariably changes from age
to age (p 26).
In the face of such varying attitudes regarding nature, it would be a difficult
and rather precarious effort to propose, or impose, a set of uniform cultural structures,
institutions, and functions as the only appropriate cultural standards worthy of
permaculture. Such an attempt to propose a comprehensive cultural design strategy,
would, in the permaculture vernacular, be akin to an agriculturist imposing
monocultures on the land, or in a social respect, forcing coercive adherence to a
singular path of revolution, reminiscent of Leninism. The point, ultimately, is for
cultural structures, institutions, or functions to develop in harmony with ecological
structures, institutions, and functions. Such a process of development, according to
both permaculture and anarchism, must come from the bottom up and not the top
down. In the words of Holmgren (2002), Permaculture... is not primarily about
lobbying government to change policies. Instead, it is concerned with facilitating
individuals, households and local communities in increasing self-reliance and self-
regulation (p 80). In order to acquire a feel for the social and cultural aspects of
permaculture, one must shift focus away from the broad literature and towards local
46


movements that are actively experimenting in harmonizing culture with sustainable
ecological design on the ground.
47


CHAPTER III:
ANARCHISM AS POLITICAL CULTURE
This chapter reviews core practices, theory and ideology of contemporary
anarchism. Just as I did in the preceding permaculture chapter, I pay considerable
attention to the actual practice of anarchism. Contemporary anarchist literature (and
also daily discourse and practice) is largely concerned with practice and process first,
and then perhaps with theory depending on the individual (see Gordon 2008). This
focus is due, no doubt, to the fact that the anarchist literature consciously reflects or
mirrors anarchist practice. Both anarchist intellectuals and activists are primarily
concerned with maintaining consistency between means and ends. For many anarchist
activists, the means, or the tactics one uses (both physical and intellectual) should
strive to emulate as much as possible the goals that one is seeking to bring about
(Amster et al 2009 pp 5-6, see also Graeber 2009, p 203). Another way of saying this
is Gandhi's adage of being the change one wishes to see. Contemporary anarchism,
then, is a method of revolutionary politics that is focused on reinventing daily life
through the processes and lifestyles it practices as actual lived experience in the here
and now.
Within this review I focus considerable attention on anarchist literature that
views contemporary anarchism primarily as a political culture in the here and now. In
this vein, I largely rely on Gordon's (2008) use of the term 'political culture,' as a set
of shared orientations towards 'doing politics', in a context where interaction takes on
48


enough regularity to structure the participants' mutual expectations (p 14). He
continues: In their cultural context, political events, behaviours, institutions or
processes can receive an intelligible and 'thick' description (citing Geertz, p 14). In
this political culture, distinct cultural markers (e.g. consensus-style decision making,
non-hierarchical organization etc.) take on a regular and sustained occurrence to the
extent that they are easily recognizable to others involved within and also outside of
the culture.
A lot of the literature focused on anarchism as a cultural phenomenon is
mostly based on the writers and activists first hand experiences with organizing and
participating in the much larger national and international arena of the movement
where protests against such global power conglomerations like the G8, WTO,
NAFTA and U.S. presidential party conventions are the norm (Purkis and Bowens
2004, p 213; cf. Juris 2009, p 219). Graeber (2007), writing on anarchism and the
anti-globalization movement, states:
As a political philosophy, anarchism is going through a veritable explosion
in recent years. Anarchist or anarchist-inspired movements are growing
everywhere; anarchist principlesautonomy, voluntary association, self-
organization, mutual aid, direct democracyhave become the basis for
organizing within the globalization movement and beyond (pp 303-04).
This phenomenon is rather widespread, so much so that an outsider could very well
assume that the only venue of anarchist expression is the chaotic streets on which
protesters confront varying authorities. In this vein, Greaeber (2002) cites a new
language of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival and
what can only be called non-violent warfare. Goaman (2004) speaks to a street
protest phenomenon where the the familiar is defamiliarized (p 171), through
49


unconventional and extraordinary protest tactics.
This focus is not without warrant, however, considering that these practices
have generated considerable attention on the movement. From the anti-WTO protests
of Seattle in 1999 to continuing anarchist-inspired uprisings like those in Greece,
international and national street protests are where the movement first gained its
renewed notoriety, momentum and direction, especially in a post 9-11 political
environment (Goaman, 2004, p 164). There is little written, however, that addresses
life in anarchist communities after the tear gas begins to fade and folks return home.
As the more theoretical review of anarchism in this chapter progresses into chapter
four, therefore, I will be discussing this less-explored, lived aspect of the
movement, the common cultural practices adopted by permaculture practitioners and
anarchic leaning activists in their daily lives.
Before presenting this lived aspect, however, this current chapter is
designed to describe contemporary anarchism as it is presented within an immense
and growing body of anarchist literature. The specific approaches that I rely on,
almost exclusively, come from those anarchist intellectuals whose findings are based
on varying forms of ethnographic inquiry and analysis. These intellectuals treat
contemporary anarchism primarily as a political culture, drawing their conclusions
from on-going and distinct anarchist imperatives or principles concerning how
practice is organized, executed and sustained. Of these, I focus on anarchist models of
organization and repertoires of action, the latter of which brings forth discussion on
direct action, prefigurative action and consensus decision making. These practices
and resultant culture of doing politics, are carried out with the explicit goal of self-
50


regulation. Section 1 of this chapter explores anarchism as a political culture that is
shaped and structured by these specific political activities. In sections 2 and 3,1
explore contemporary anarchist models of organization and repertoires of action,
respectively. What is clear throughout this chapter is that the various forms of
principled practice popular in contemporary anarchism form the substance of its
political culture, a political culture that relies on self-regulation that increasingly
intersects with the culture and practices of the permaculture community.
Before this review and discussion ensues, it is important for purposes of my
research that an essential distinction in terminology is made: between anarchism and
anarchy. As will become more clear in chapter 4,1 do not want to confuse the reader
or implicate members of the communities I lived in and studied with by implying that
everyone involved in the Denver permaculture/anarchist/radical community are
anarchists in the specifically Euro-American sense of the term, or at all. Acceptance
of diverse view points and backgrounds, a willingness to work with neighborhood
organizations, and inclusion of people and groups regardless of ideological affiliation
is a defining feature or hallmark of the groups studied, as well as a feature of
contemporary anarchism itself. Therefore, not everyone living in a collective house,
or who participates in social justice or ecological activism or organizing, is an
anarchist, or even politically minded or opinionated at all. But people who choose to
live their lives within these self-regulating communities, with increasingly developed,
self-regulating ecological systems in place, are living anarchically, at least in some
ways that I will explore in chapter 4.
So what, then, is the difference between anarchism (as a political/social
51


philosophy) and anarchy (as a way of living)? I employ Barclay's (1982) distinction
between anarchism and anarchy. Anarchism, he states, is the social political
theory, developed in 19th century Europe, which incorporates the idea of anarchy, but
does so as part of, and as a result of, a broader, self-conscious theory of values which
makes human freedom and individuality paramount. While anarchy, is the
condition of society in which there is no ruler; government is absent. It is also most
clearly associated with those societies which have been called 'archaic' and 'primitive',
among other pejorative adjectives (p 16). Central in this distinction is that
anarchism, as an 'ism', is largely the construct of a very specific Euro-American
ideological school of thought. Beginning in 19th century Europe, the first anarchist
thinkers extrapolated the idea of living without government, or anarchism, as a self-
reflexive and critical social theory that advocated for anarchic social conditions. In
distinction to anarchism as an ideological construct, anarchy, according to Barclay
(1982), is a condition of living, marked by the absence of rulers external to a tribal or
communal structureas in a people without governmentexisting as it often (but
not exclusively) does in primitive societies where institutionalized forms of self-
regulation and self-governance are marked features of daily life. Anarchy, then, is a
term to describe a condition of how people live, where anarchism is concerned with
how people believe they should live: In place of the old system, anarchist theory
advocates self-regulation and voluntary co-operation (Barclay 1982, pp 15-16).
To extend Barclay's distinction, and for use in this thesis, the term anarchist
is both noun and adjective. The noun, 'anarchist,' refers to an adherent of anarchism
much as a Marxist refers to an adherent of Marxism. The adjective takes two forms,
52


anarchist and anarchistic, and it describes anything possessing the characteristics of
anarchismfor example, 'anarchistic organizing' because the act of organizing is
carried out according to the tenets of anarchism by those who self-identify as
anarchists, or it's an anarchist organization because its principles of purpose are
aligned with theories of anarchism. In distinction to the adjective anarchist,
Anarchic, then, is an adjective used to describe anything relating to anarchyfor
example, an anarchic tribe, an anarchic forest, or the anarchic forms of collective
living.
Section 1:
Contemporary Anarchism as Political Culture
An essential element to understanding anarchist political culture is the
significance that anarchists have attached to political practice ever since its inception
during the 19 century. The notion of propaganda by the deed, (which is a reference
most often to political assassination, as it was en vogue during the turn of the
twentieth century) is inherited from the early days of the movement (Juris 2009, p
219). Indeed, different anarchist groups have been named after the varying forms of
practice they predominately follow or carry out on a day to day basis: Anarcho-
Syndicalists, and Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists and Platformists,
Cooperativists, Individualists, and so on (Graeber 2007, p 304). Graeber (2007)
contrasts this phenomenon with various Marxist strains that are most commonly
named after some grand theoretician: Lenninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Gramscians,
Althusserians, etc. Anarchists, continues Graeber (2007), are distinguished by
what they do, and how they organize themselves to go about doing it...This has
53


always been what anarchists have spent most of their time thinking and arguing
about (p 304). In this vein it is not surprising that the word anarchism itself is closely
associated with principles like self-organization, voluntary association, [and] mutual
aid, (Graeber 2007, p 303), or that forms of organizing are based on decentralized,
horizontal and consensus seeking values (Gordon 2008, p 10). The point, then, is
that anarchists are primarily concerned with doing politics as opposed to thinking or
theorizing about politics, though there is plenty of theorizing as well (see Gordon
2008). One cannot describe anarchist political culture without describing its practice.
The resultant outcome of doing, of practicing, of actingultimately of beingis an
inseparable element of anarchist political culture.
Essentially, anarchist political culture is based in the ways that anarchists
organize amongst themselves and with other groups, what specific actions they
choose to carry out and how they go about doing all of it. To understand this political
culture, Gordon sets forward four broad categories that are unique to contemporary
anarchist culture: models of organization, repertoires of action, cultural expression,
and political discourse (p 14). The first two categories, models of organization and
repertoires of action, will be elaborated on in the following two sections, while the
remaining two, cultural expression and political discourse, will be taken up more fully
in chapter 4.
Section 2
Anarchist Models of Organization
One of the defining features of anarchist organizing models is the network.
54


A network is made up of autonomous nodes of struggle. One of the primary functions
of a network is connecting and informing multiple anarchist-oriented groups,
organizations, federations and individuals in a specified town, city or region; as
opposed to acting as a mouthpiece or centralized political machine that speaks for a
specified area or group. The organizational principles of the North East Anarchist
Network presents a good example: With recognition and respect for existing
organizations, networks, and federations engaged in these struggles, we have created
a network, not to replace any of them but to connect all of them, not as an end in itself
but as a process and a means to pursue the following collective aims... (NEAN:
about). The anarchist logic of networking, then, serves to connect and inform along
horizontal and decentralized means. According to Juris, Networks are thus the most
effective way 'to balance freedom and coordination, autonomy with collective work,
self-organization with effectiveness (Juris 2009 quoting Pau, p 220).
Gordon (2008) expands discussion on networks to include what he calls,
banners, Adopting the cultural logic of networking, banners are designed to enable
both international solidarity and local autonomy simultaneously (p 15). On the
international and national scales, these political networks and banners serve as mere
templates rather than strict blueprints for the proper direction of action.
The network and banner, according to Gordon (2008), can be described as
lending an architecture that is distinct to the much larger global anarchist movement.
Using an ecological metaphor (borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari), Gordon (2008)
describes this architecture as a rhizomethe stemless, bulbous root-mass of plants
like potato or bambooa structure based on principles of connection, heterogeneity,
55


multiplicity and non-linearity (p 14). Just as a rhizome produces no discernible lead
stem but multiple stems breaking through the soil, testing new locations with new
conditions, yet still connected beneath the soil this rhizomatic architecture of the
movement is a defining cultural quality. Gordon continues: The architecture of the
movement is that of a decentralized global network of communication, coordination
and mutual support among countless autonomous nodes of social struggle,
overwhelmingly lacking formal membership or fixed boundaries (p 14).
What these networks and models accomplish, ultimately, is the enabling of
local groups to act in accordance to their own imperatives as they are shaped
invariably by local circumstance. At the local or micro level (Gordon 2008), these
national or international networks and banners are anchored by a connection to and
involvement in local struggles: The anarchist conclusion is that every kind of human
activity should begin from what is local and immediate (Juris 2009 quoting Ward, p
216). At the local level, anarchist models of organization take on the form of
collectives, communes and affinity groups where anarchist activists often participate
in local struggles with citizen associations, youth groups, radical NGOs and even
local chapters of Green and Socialist parties (though many anarchists absolutely
refuse to collaborate with any political party) (p 16). Also existing at this local level
is what Gordon (2008) calls a distinctive tribal quality to daily life and to political
organizing:
The closest affinities exists (sic) on the level of small groups and local
milieusthe 'bands' and 'extended families' where there is the closest level
of friendship and trust.... A special feature of tribal solidarity is the
instinctive tendency to extend it to perceived members of one's extended
family or tribe. Here the feeling of identification, and the mutuality and
reciprocity it motivates, is premised on shared cultures of resistance and
56


visions for social change (p 17).
While networks, rhizomes and banners are the actual bricks and mortar of the global
movement, this tribal affinity of anarchist organizing, according to Gordon, is the
foundation of the global movement: The ties that hold anarchist networks together
begin from the primary affinities of face-to-face groups and collectives, extending
through a dense web of personal connections and virtual nodes to form an
international context for cooperation and solidarity (p 16). Gordon thus views the
international movement of anarchism as being sustained by tribal notions premised on
shared cultures of resistance and visions of social change.
The organizational models developed and maintained by anarchists form the
architecture of a global movement of activists. Through leaderless, decentralized,
horizontal networks and banners, rhizomatic in nature, this architecture is designed to
create spaces for anarchist political practice to inhabit and flourish. And while these
networks and banners are the actual structures, the foundation of this architecture lies
in the face-to-face interaction of activists who form close ties or tribal affinities at
local levels, sites or 'nodes' of resistance. This overall architecture is designed to be
fluid and dynamic, allowing for difference and diversity to emerge as a principled
necessity, which is core to anarchist culture. Difference and diversity also allows local
collectives and groups to engage in various struggles, campaigns, destructive and
creative forms of direct action that are particular to local circumstance and needs. The
micro and meso levels are where the political culture of contemporary anarchism
begins to take root, eventually growing into a truly international movement. The
question must be asked, though, how do anarchists actually organize within these
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networked models of organization?
Section 3
Repertoires of Action
As mentioned above, contemporary anarchism is primarily concerned with
practice, praxis, process, consistent means and ends, and what can only be described
as a conscious effort to transform everyday life and actual lived experience. In this
sphere of anarchist activity, principles and ideas of how life should be organized
(egalitarian, mutual aid, self-regulating, consensus-seeking, voluntary association,
horizontal or rhizomatic organization, decentralization etc) are enacted in the here and
now regardless, and often in spite of, consent or approval from any various external
authority. Such a process of enacting a worldview that is alien to much of the culture
one is immersed in and shaped by, relies on a process of cultivating individual and
collective power. In the words of Ackelsberg (quoted by Gaarder 2009):
When people join together to exert control over their workplace, their
community, the conditions of their day-to-day lives, they experience the
changes they make as their own. Instead of reinforcing the sense of
powerlessness that often accompanies modest improvements granted from
the top of a hierarchical structure, a strategy of direct action enables people
to create their own power (emphasis original, p 54).
This process of activists creating their own power is accomplished through various
kinds of practices that are adopted into their daily lives, and transformed or employed
in ways that suit their particular situations. Of these various practices, I will pay
considerable attention to direct action, prefigurative politics and the consensus
process.
Direct Action
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Direct action, from a basic understanding, is action without intermediaries
(Gordon 2008, p 17). For example, if there is a city-wide ordinance banning chickens,
the direct actionist will build a chicken coop (probably from mostly scavenged
materials as direct action is closely aligned with the Do It Yourself or DIY ethic), and
buy some chickens to put them in without asking for permission from the city, and in
conscious violation of the ordinance. It should also be mentioned, however, that the
direct actionistespecially if they are community oriented as many arewill most
likely try to achieve consensus with neighbors first, or at least inform neighbors that
chickens will be coming soon and encourage them to voice objections or concerns if
there are any. And all of this is carried out instead of trying to- lobby city councilin
this case, the intermediaryfor the ability to keep and care for chickens.
Though informative, this prosaic example of direct action, does not fully
capture the complexity of intellectual discussion of the meaning of direct action.
The term itself carries nuanced definitions that have sparked vigorous debate and
dialogue over the last century and a half of anarchist organizing (Graeber 2009, p
204).
In his book, Direct action: An ethnography. David Graeber (2009) wrestles
with the meaning and definition of direct action through 500 pages of field notes,
analysis and in-depth discussion of his experiences with anarchist oriented groups
during the early 2000swhen street protests within the movement reached a fevered
climax. Graeber concludes that direct action involves some or all of the following:
people acting to directly...transform their own immediate situation, or simply acting
as if one is already free (p 207). Direct action can take many different forms, like a
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collective house, a (permaculture) garden, a DIY bicycle repair shop or an
underground market place featuring homemade foods and crafts. Direct action is also
often closely associated with a certain degree of militancy. As Graeber (2009)
explains: 'Direct action' becomes a form of political resistance that is overt, militant,
and confrontational, but falls short of outright military insurrection (p 204). In this
case, such acts as blockading a logging road, pouring sugar into the gas tank of a
bulldozer set upon an old growth forest or public housing project, or other forms of
sabotage or ecotage are most often referred to as direct action. These two distinct
forms are what Gordon (2009) refers to as creative and destructive direct action, and
can both be called repertoires or tools in the tool box of anarchist praxis.
And while both creative and destructive forms of direct action are
undeniably a part of the practical repertoire, it is on the creative side of direct
actionwhere there exists a growing proliferation of self-organized...alternatives to
capitalism on the ground (Gordon 2009, p 257)that we see dynamic forms of
practice engaged as a means to confront and lessen the growing ecological and
subsequent political and social crises that most anarchists believe are rapidly
approaching (see Gordon 2009, pp 249-253; Jones 2009, p 236). The Rhizome
Collective in Austin, Texas encapsulates this flavor of creative direct action in their
mission statement:
Our purpose is the design and display of functioning ecological tools and
technologies, created to give communities greater self-reliance over life's
basic resources: water, food, energy production, waste management, shelter
and remediation of toxins. By having this (sic) systems open for the public
to learn from and interact with, we hope to educate and inspire others to
continue the work of building locally based, decentralized, radically
sustainable infrastructures. By doing so, we hope to ease humanity's
transition into a post-petroleum future, and simultaneously undermine
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oppressive powers that maintain resource monopolies (Rhizome Collective).
Apparent in this mission statement is the spirit of creative direct action. It is creative
in that the Rhizome Collective's mission is to enable and empower people to create
the necessary infrastructure that they need for living. It is a process engaged by
activists themselves and for themselves, as a means of ensuring their own well-being
and creating their own power. And the exclusive focus on self-regulating and self-
directed communities is where direct action comes into the fold. Through direct
action, anarchic groups like the Rhizome collective seek to build communities that
are empowered and educated in the means to provide immediately for their own
material well-being, as opposed to empowering and educating individuals to lobby
their governments or transform the wider market so that they may subsequently live
the kind of life they seek.
Prefigurative Direct Action
On this creative front, direct action assumes yet another form: what is called
prefigurative direct action. Direct action is prefigurative when the act an individual or
community is engaging in replicates, as closely as possible, some element of a future
society that they advocate for on a daily basis. Discussion over consistent means and
ends is especially pertinent here. The means or actions one carries out prefigures the
ends one wishes to bring into fruition; it literally prefigures future possibilities.
Prefigurative politics, then, is another way of 'being the change' one wants to see in
society, on any level from personal relationships that address sexism and racism to
sustainable living and communal economies (Gordon 2008, p 18). To put this
another way, Graeber (2009) states that direct action, At its most elaborate, [is
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where] the structure of one's own act becomes a kind of micro-utopia, a concrete
model for one's vision of a free society (p 210). Clearly, creative and prefigurative
direct actions create alternatives to the existing hegemony of social, political, and
ecological relations, where the on-going activisms of anarchists represent a clear and
distinct anarchist culture of resistance.
Consensus
Anarchist inspired groups tend to operate on the assumption that no one
could, or probably should, ever convert another person completely to one's
own point of view, that decision-making structures are ways of managing
diversity, and, therefore, that one should concentrate instead on maintaining
egalitarian process and on considering immediate questions of action in the
present (Graeber 2007, p 301).
Consensus as a decision-making structure, as an egalitarian process, is a
means by which a diversity of opinions and people arrive at decisions regarding
questions over specific actions in the here and now. Consensus is undoubtedly a form
of creative direct action and it is also a prefigurative action as well. Wishing to be
the change they want to see, activists employ consensus as a means of creating
structures that engage such anarchist principles as egalitarianism, direct democracy,
anti-hierarchical and horizontal organizing, among many others, because that is how
activists envision a future society.
Consensus, as the name implies, is based on unanimous approval, where
everyone attending a meeting actively participates in reaching a decision that is
amenable to all. Such a dramatic decision-making strategy requires mutually agreed
upon procedures of facilitation, which vary from group to group (i.e. formal
consensus or informal consensus) and vary based on the context in which consensus
is being employed: from direct actions against a logging company or a process of
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reaching decisions in a collective community. It is in these procedures and contexts,
however, that the incongruity between consensus and voting is most apparent;
consensus exists in blaring contrast, and often in reaction to, the act of voting. It
requires, ultimately, a different perspective concerning what constitutes a decision, a
different style of engaging with arguments you disagree with and an ability to be
creative in compromises and solutions. Contrasting voting to the style of debate that
consensus decision making encourages, Graeber (2007) states:
Where voting encourages one to reduce one's opponents' positions to a
hostile caricature, or whatever it takes to defeat them, a consensus process is
built on a principle of compromise and creativity, where one is constantly
changing proposals around until one can come up with something everyone
can at least live with. Therefore, the incentive is always to put the best
possible construction on others' arguments (p 302).
What consensus is all about, really, is not voting, but a group of people coming to a
decision together (Grubacic and Lynd 2008, p 186). It could be said that in opposition
to the all too often vitriolic spectacle of voting endemic to the dominant political
culture, consensus emerges as a demonstration of good faith, cooperation, and a
willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt.
While many anarchist intellectuals herald consensus as a successful and
revolutionary process, as an admirable and provocative experimentation with forms
of direct democracy and egalitarianism, many other intellectuals do not see it this way
at all. The consensus process within the movement is prominent, if contested,
according to Gordon (2008, p 37). As will become clear in the following chapter,
many of the criticisms and consequent debates concerning the consensus process that
appear in the literature, also appear on the ground at The Collective.
The historical origins of consensus decision making are somewhat hazy. In
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tracing its deep historical roots, some go back to Native Americans such as the
Iroquois Confederacy, or to European Quakers of the early modem period (Grubacic
and Lynd 2008, p 186). In tracing consensus's contemporary lineage, most all
attribute it to the Quakers (Epstein 2001), while Gordon also includes anarcha-
feminists of the 1960s in this mix (Gordon 2007, p 41). Most all scholars, however,
point to the non-violent direct action movements against nuclear power and
militarism in the 1970s and 1980s, namely the Clamshell Alliance (Epstein 2001) and
Abalone, both in North America (Gordon 2007, p 41), as the rebirth of the
contemporary usage of consensus in the context of radical, anti-establishment
political organizing.
Adherence to consensus and direct action outlasted these groups and today
are widespread within the anarchist milieu (Epstein 2001). Important to note here, as
Epstein (2001) points out, is that these anti-nuclear groups, though prominent and
successful throughout the 70s and 80s, are not around today:
Each of the major organizations of the nonviolent direct action movement
began with great promise but soon went into decline, in large part due to the
structural and ideological rigidities associated with insistence on consensus
decision-making and reluctance to acknowledge the existence of leadership
within the movement. This raises a question for the anti-globalization
movement: will it share the fate of the nonviolent direct action movements
of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, or will it gain the flexibility that will
allow it to evolve with changing circumstances?
According to Epstein (2001), the problem with consensus and perhaps even the
anarchist movement in general is its insistence to adhere to consensus and other
egalitarian processes as an absolute, or dogmatic, organizing necessity. It is clear that
Epstein is sympathetic to anarchism, so while she advocates for a flexibility in
practice that allows for fluidity and the evolution of ideas and experimentation with
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different forms of organizing, she still values anarchist principles that have given rise
to consensus in the first place. The goal, then, for anarchists (according to Epstein), is
to maintain anarchist principles while also searching for more effective means of
arriving at decisions.
Section 4
Conclusion
What the anarchist literature demonstrates is that within the movement, a
firm insistence on egalitarian practice, consensual processes, and other anarchist
oriented principles are carried out as organizational imperatives. What this amounts
to, ultimately, is a political culture signified by a distinct manner of 'doing politics' as
opposed to just theorizing about politics. Also apparent is that most of the
ethnographic experiences and writings on anarchist groups describe these phenomena
in the context of massive street protests or other large scale national or international
mobilizations: namely, by focusing on explicitly political actions. What is largely left
out of the above analyses is the realm of daily life where anarchistic or anarchic
groups are employing these same principles. As demonstrated in Denver, Colorado,
the similarities between anarchist political culture and the daily lives of residents in
Denver's collective community are strikingly similar. In the following chapter, then,
key principles that shape models of organization and repertoires of action in the
political realm, are being transformed into social, cultural and ecological realms of
daily life, where the anarchist aim of a 'revolution of everyday life' takes on renewed
significance.
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In this social realm, the anarchist principles mentioned above are lived as
day to day experiences of social experimentation, cultural innovation and also
concerted efforts at ecological cooperation and sustainability. Given that direct action,
prefigurative politics and consensus are cultural practices that not only allow activists
to produce their own power free from intermediary or external forces, but these
cultural practices also enable activists to reinvent their daily lives where the outcome
is a self-regulating community. Political goals and perspectives definitely exist in
Denver's collective community, yet the community as a whole is not explicitly
political in the sense that not everyone within the collective community identify
themselves or the community as political, nor does everyone identify as anarchist. But
because the daily lives are structured around anarchist principles, it possesses an
unmistakable anarchic flavor.
The previous two chapters explore, at length, two distinct yet related
theories and distinct forms of ecological and social practice. The reason for giving
substantial attention to these practices in this thesis is due to the fact that anarchism,
and especially permaculture, are generally ignored in the academy (Veteto, Lockyer
2008, p 49; Holmgren 2002, p xxii). Attempts to document these movements must
begin at a base level with detailed explication of the finer points of practice, values
and philosophy. Hence, this thesis spends considerable time documenting these
theoretical strains in this fashion. The research findings of this thesis, in proportion,
are not as significant. Documenting a community engaged in creating a Permaculture,
howevever much it is in its early stages, requires the sort of treatment given here.
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CHAPTER IV:
CASE STUDY: THE BEGINNINGS OF AN ACTUAL PERMACULTURE
The Denver community that I have lived in and studied with is
experimenting with different ways of living that are in direct response to growing
social and ecological crises. The response, at least in part, is to reclaim local spaces
through development of a dynamic practice that integrates social and ecological
lifestyles within principally urban areas. The key word here is lifestyle. If there is
one unifying theme or trait amongst the collective community in Denver, it is a
distinct lifestyle, in other words, culture. The defining features of this culture are
maintained and reinforced by shared values that are widely, but not completely,
adopted. Among those shared values, Permaculture design and anarchic social
relations factor immensely in the lives of residents of Denver's collective community
and at The Collective.
Some of the most prominent and identifiable values are a commitment to
community, a commitment to egalitarianism, and a firm insistence on direct action or
DIY, and permaculture design. These values are expressed on a daily basis through
the very existence of collective or community houses (an expression of a commitment
to community), varied forms of consensus decision making and the absence of formal
leadership structures (indicating a commitment to egalitarianism), and widespread
proliferation of gardens informed by permaculture design (indicating an increased
understanding of ecosystems in the urban environment). All of this is carried out with
a firm insistence to the DIY or direct action ethic, where a 'thick,' identifiable trait is
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one of self-regulation or self-governance both socially, and ecologically.
This social and ecological integration, carried out with an explicit goal of
self-regulation, is the central piece in describing the Denver collective community as
the beginnings of an actual permaculture. Permanence, in the sense of being able to
exist indefinitely into the future, is not a cultural value with as much weight as socio-
ecological integration, due to various and numerous external and internal forces that
undermine goals of permanence. Hence, I describe Denver's collective community as
a beginning Permaculture, and not an actual Permaculture. However, based on the
criterion of independencethat in order for a society, system or full featured human
settlement to be considered a sustainable development or Permaculture, it must
possess a varying degree of social and ecological independenceDenver's collective
community is developing towards a Permaculture through cultural and ecological
practices meant to maximize independence.
This chapter examines the culture and values of three distinct, yet related,
groupings of a countercultural social network in Denver, Colorado: The DIY
communi-scene, the collective community, and the dynamics of one particular
collective house, The Collective. The Denver DIY communi-scene is the largest
social group. And like all three groupings, it is not necessarily easy to define where
the DIY community begins or ends, or to determine its reach and influence across the
city as a whole. Gordon's description of anarchist networks applies to all three social
groups in that all three are overwhelmingly lacking formal membership or fixed
boundaries. Indeed, the communi-scene and the collective community are different
yet related social groups that comprise a loose social network consisting of a dozen or
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so collective houses, musicians, intellectuals, cooks, gardeners, artists, DIY
musicians, gardeners, and crafters, and the list goes on, who all participate in one way
or another in sustaining this culture and shared values.
This distinct culture and values certainly existed at The Collective,9 where I
directed considerable research attention, mostly through participant observation, but
also through interviews and a discussion group that served as the capstone of my
research. Beyond an exploration of their anarchic culture and values, I chose to
research The Collective for other reasons as well. The Collective, as I experienced it,
seemed to function in a style and manner that was different in many ways from my
previous experiences and observations of collective living. For one, it was remarkably
stableturnover amongst residents was low, and residency of a year or more was not
uncommon. Another feature of The Collective that set it apart, was that it was more
values-based (i.e. community, egalitarianism, direct action, etc.) as opposed to many
other collectives that were explicitly politically based (i.e. a general adherence to a
singular political affiliation)most commonly anarchist or anti-authoritarian.
On this social front, many residents identified with anarchism on varying
levels, but perhaps just as many, if not more, did not. And while this fact created
tension within the house at times, in terms of expectations specifically around
consensus and the sharing of food, it did not serve to destabilize an otherwise
successful attempt at collective living. Given this values approach, the house was
inclusive of varying belief systems and orientations.
9
The Collective formed in April 2009, and as with many collectives, was forced to shut its doors only
after two years by order of the landlord who refused to renew their lease in April 2011. Their soft-
eviction occurred after my research was completed but before the writing process had finished. Hence,
observations of The Collective are made in the past tense.
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The purpose of exploring Denver's collective community through the lenses
of permaculture and anarchism in this chapter is to examine how both are
contextualized within an ongoing project in the present tense. Because both
anarchism and permaculture are contextual approaches to social change, they
invariably change and adapt to local circumstances. Thus, this chapter presents the
ethnographic findings first, and then synthesizes these findings in the context of
permaculture and anarchism in the final section.
The first section of this chapter revisits the anarchism/anarchist/anarchy
discussion presented earlier in the literature review, but in an operational context
directly applicable to Denver's communi-scene and collective community. In this
section, I also define and categorize Denver's collective community and relevant
terms for purposes of clarity for the reader. In the end, I conclude that the Denver
collective community is largely an experimentation with alternative cultures and
values that are influenced and shaped by anarchic tendencies and permaculture
design. The outcome is that what these folks are creating is the seed of an actual
Permaculture. These cultures and values are forms of social change in and of
themselves and, for many, it is an act of resistance against the prevailing hegemony
that is responsible for continued social and ecological crises.
Section 1
Describing Denvers Collective Community
The terms anarchism, anarchy, anarchist and anarchic have already were
introduced and examined using Barclay's (1982) interpretation as a foundation. The
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distinction between these terms is necessary in order to clear up confusion and
potential harm in using such loaded terms when describing Denver's collective
community. Gordon (2008) addresses the particularities and problems that arise when
attempting to understand and describe the anarchist movement (pp 12-14). One of
the first problematic particularities he addresses is how anti-authoritarian, anarchist,
and radical activists identify themselves. Many anarchists writes Gordon, do not
enjoy adopting any label at air (emphasis original, p 13). Even people who strongly
identify with anarchistic ideals, who may even identify as anarchists or subscribers to
anarchy in their immediate social circles, find the idea of donning labels in society at
large counterproductive or even confiningespecially when, in the words of Imarisha
and Not4Prophet, Anarchy or anarchism is really something we seek and live and
struggle for, so it doesn't matter what we call ourselves (or don't) if we are in the
midst of action doing it (quoted in Gordon 2008, p 13). Further, to label someone or a
group of people as anarchists, in mainstream culture, Gordon explains, is to invite
cultural stereotypes and stigmas, most all of them negative: bomb thrower, nihilist,
assassin, chaos, violence, fear, etc. (p 12). The storm rages still when you assign such
a loaded label to a group of people who are not all anarchist, as is the case with the
Denver communities I studied. Casting a label upon someone or a group who does
not identify with that label can constitute a violation of the principle of respect for
persons. It can also be dangerous. This is in part due to the fact that provocative labels
can attract the attention (i.e. surveillance) of various law enforcement agencies and
private security firms.
For such reasons, it is impossible to label Denver's collective community as
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uniformly anarchist, or to conclude that the community as a whole ascribes to
anarchism or any other identifiable intellectual tradition, whether within the anarchist
tradition (e.g. social ecology, primitivism, eco-anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.)
or outside of it (e.g. libertarianism, socialism, or any variant of Marxism). Not only is
such a labeling impossible for the reasons mentioned above, but also because there is
no unified, conscious and self-reflective system of thought or engagement within the
community that strictly advocates for a society without government. Nor is there any
organized project, to speak a bit in hyperbole, to overthrow the government.
Nevertheless, it is also true that the community's values and practices are
undeniably influenced by contemporary anarchist thought and practice in that
communities have developed an on-going practice of self-regulation. But the fact
remains that strict adherence to an exclusively anarchist political program is absent.
Because these communities are primarily concerned with transforming daily life
within self-regulating communities, increasingly self-regulating ecosystems and
networks independent of any political-party or overt external influence, however, the
collective community can be described as a present tense experimentation in anarchy,
in anarchic social relations that are largely self-generated and self-defined.
While the collective community is an on-going experiment in anarchy, in
that its social, political and cultural expressions and formations are anarchic, how to
further describe the collective community in relation to the much larger DIY
countercultural scene is difficult. Descriptions are as messy as they are subjective.
When asked to describe the overall community that residents of The Collective were
involved in during a discussion group, responses varied widely. What is clear,
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however, is that the Denver collective community, those people who actually live at
any of the dozen or so collective houses, are a part of a much larger and amorphous
DIY countercultural scene, or in the words of an anarchist leaning resident of The
Collective, a communi-scene:
Its definitely counterculture because its anti the mainstream...Everyone in
[this counterculture] is anti the mainstream, like everyone in the DIY scene.
You could just call it the DIY scene. I like the word, communi-scene. That's
the word Im trying to spread, because its part community, part scene. A
scene is a bit more about image I feel. And I feel like were really coming
from the heart and blah blah blah. But there are a lot of people who are in
the DIY communi-scene who are about image and consumerism and
consumption of DIY culture (8-31-10).
Important here is the word communi-scene. The prefix communi is
meant to be descriptive, and quite literal. It is a community of people. Scene is used
in the sense that people involved in the communi-scene aren't necessarily involved
purely for reasons of community, nor are all of them really coming from the heart.
The communi-scene, then, is definitely not a political party in the traditional sense of
the term, nor do they participate in what is generally understood as an overtly
political movement. It is true that the DIY communi-scene at times can certainly look
like a political movement, especially during major political events as was witnessed
in the massive mobilizations in Denver against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see
ACLU Meet Our Clients) and also the DNC protests in 2008, where numerous
people from the communi-scene helped feed the homeless with a program called
Food Not Bombs (see Petersen 2008).
But not everyone in the much larger communi-scene is involved for these
reasons. Use of the word scene, then, is meant to signify the fluidity of the communi-
scene. It is part scene, part political, part community, and at times part image and
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consumerism where any or all of these aspects appeal to different people differently
within this scene. There is no set, unified or expectant way to view, act, or practice
within the communi-scene as well.
Denver's DIY collective community, then, consists of those people who
actually live in, or have lived in, or spend considerable time hanging around in
collective houses. Where the communi-scene in Denver is a much larger community
of people who are all involved in countercultural, DIY activities as expressed through
art, music, food, etc., the collective community engages in direct action and DIY
primarily as a project of creating their own egalitarian communities, operating on
consensus, growing their own gardens or raising chickens, with the end result of
creating self-regulating communities that occupy a specific niche within the much
larger communi-scene. In both of these groups, however, culture, music, morality,
politics, expectations of social relationships, gender roles and sexuality are all
informed by an inherently direct action/DIY outlook that allows or perhaps
commands people that if one is not satisfied with the mainstream or the status quo,
one must create and own their own subjectivities, however divergent they may
become. In this respect, DIY morphs from a mere outlook and into a form of direct
action and prefigurative politics.
In conclusion, there are three social groupings, distinguished by size, that
are examined in this chapter: The DIY communi-scene, which will be examined the
least, Denver's collective community, and then The Collective. The DIY communi-
scene is the largest group examined (it is included here for purposes of locating
Denver's collective community and The Collective within the social network where it
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exists). It can be described as a social network of people living alternative lifestyles
that often run in conscious opposition to the mainstream, but not always. The
collective community, then, is a component of the larger, alternative, DIY communi-
scene. Where a larger, alternative scene is often about image and consumption of
culture, the smaller collective community is more of a community because activists
are in the self-conscious process of creating community and culture. Residents of the
various collectives tend to be more committed to the values listed above simply
because they live them out on a daily basis.
The Collective is, as presented here, is a microcosm of both the communi-
scene and also the collective community. As a collective steeped in values more than
a singular political vision, its openness and multiplicity of visions attracted residents
that were not necessarily interested in the values of egalitarianism as carried out
through consensus, or the communal aspects of community living, but nonetheless
participated in the building of community, or in producing high quality, DIY music, as
will be explained below.
Section 2
Denver's Collective Community Explored
Section 2 explores the actual lifestyles of Denver's collective community, as
based on four separate values mentioned above: community, egalitarianism,
permaculture design and DIY. The ethnographic findings in this section are mostly
culled from actual lived experience in these communities over the last eight years, as
well as from participant observation. Rounding out this section is a discussion of the
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urban imperative to engage in permaculture and anarchic activism, as perceived by
activists and residents.
Community
The collective community operates in different roles at different times
within the DIY communi-scene. Collectives can operate as social, political, cultural,
or ecological hubs of ongoing activity. A collective can become an epicenter of social
activity or cohesion; a space for political meetings, and discussion of political,
anarchist or other social theory; a place for art and graffiti that often covers living
room or ally walls; a music and show space; a space for food production,
fermentation, baking; a space for hosting weekly Food Not Bombs cooking spaces, or
a permaculture demonstration space where discussions over technique, strategy, and
philosophy are common.
Among collectives, energy may peak during periods of national or
international political unrest, such as the anti-wars protests in the early 2000s, where
collectives in Denver were politically active and where anarchist, anti-authoritarian,
and anti-war sentiment fused with an affinity towards anarcho-punk rock and political
hip hop. Denver Collectives during this period were overtly political, ideological and
radical. The DNC protests in Denver, 2008 also initiated an unmistakable political
atmosphere within collectives where discourse and daily life largely revolved around
this political event. In addition to the collective community responding energetically
to these external events, however, certain collectives within the collective community
maintain a constant presence and continually offer their home as a space for whatever
most of the residents stand behind and believe in, regardless of the external political
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climate.
Most collective houses in Denver are not permanent houses. The average
life-span is generally around two years. With the exception of one or two collective
houses that own their own space, most collectives rent and are consequently subject
to market driven instabilities and unstable landlords, as was the case with The
Collective. It's not just external pressures that may force a collective to move out and
shut its doors, but also internal pressures as well. From ongoing internal conflict,
bedbugs, or most commonly, the transient nature of this age demographic, on top of
the even more transient lifestyles of anarchists who spend considerable time train-
hopping, hitch hiking, bicycling, or traveling by other means across the country and
even the worldcollectives often disband as quickly as they form.
A house is formed when a core group of people begin expressing their
intentions as to how they want to live, their desires, preferences, needs, boundaries,
etc. While there aren't any set templates as to how a collective house should form, or
to how it should operate, there are general cultural values that most collectives choose
to follow on their own accord; and these cultural features are what set apart a house as
a collective house.
Egalitarianism through Consensus
One of the defining cultural features of a collective house are regular house
meetings that are based on varying forms of consensus-style decision making.
Whether it's formal or informal consensus, a mixture of both, or just mutual dialogue
between housemates, consensus meetings serve to build a structure of open,
respectful communication. Decisions regarding everything from garden design,
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dishes, house chores, house policies on new roommates, house guests, quiet hours and
general expectations, and much broader dialogue regarding the role of the collective
in the neighborhood or larger community, (i.e., should the collective host political,
social, cultural or arts events, etc.) are all done consensually. Such consensus decision
making is the communication structure that most all collective houses in Denver
operate on, in one form or another.
Consensus meetings are not always enjoyable, though they definitely can be
from time to time. Truth be told, the prospect of attending scheduled house meetings
is often met with sighs or any other various assortment of physical and verbal
expressions that indicate anxiety or distress. They can last an entire evening, get stuck
on controversial issues where opinions and desires clash, and sometimes there are
housemates who are particularly contrarian, opinionated or just plain difficult to deal
with. All of this hard work and anxiety-inducing process is at least partially due to the
main goal of consensus, which is to reconcile three essential ideals which are often
opposed to each other: personal autonomy, collective solidarity and direct democracy.
And it should be known that the ideals of consensus theory dont always align with
the actual practice of consensus. The theory is sound, but just as with every human
creation and endeavor, it is never actually perfect. It is a hard bill to fill, but when
done correctly, the outcome is a well-functioning and operational house.
Individual autonomy is respected to an utmost degree in the consensus
process. If one person objects to any decision, even if everyone else consents, that
one person can exercise what is called a block. Blocking a proposal, however, is not
generally a lighthearted matter, and usually only occurs after considerable dialogue,
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attempts at compromise and finding alternative solutions. Though blocking a proposal
is rare (Graeber 2009, p 88), the fact that anyone can exercise this power at any time
indicates the degree to which personal autonomy is actively respected and carried out
in the collective community (not to mention the anarchist movement in general).
Consensus is also designed to create equal power to affect decisions with your
housemates, and also equal responsibility in carrying out those decisions, in bringing
them into fruition.
Consensus as a form of decision making is direct democracy in action. The
process of voicing your desires, concerns, goals, dreams, etc. and reconciling them
with the desires, concerns, goals and dreams of a larger group is a core aspect of
democracy. In order to facilitate individual desires into a much larger group,
consensus meetings generally consist of ensuring that everyone is on the same page
regarding specific house decisions. How does this make everyone feel? is an oft
spoken phrase, or Is everyone comfortable with this? It requires people to look
inward to accurately gauge how they might feel or react to various phenomenon, to
voice their own concerns, worries and/or how excited or happy they feel. So in this
respect, integrating individual desires into a cohesive decision that all can stand
behind not only fosters individual autonomy, and collective solidarity, but also
embodies the very spirit of direct democracy. Consensus processes aim to create
community through egalitarian processes that strive not only to form decisions, but
also to create, maintain, and empower communities through the creation of a shared
collective identity.
Permaculture Design and Direct Action
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Permaculture design is a fairly recent phenomenon within Denver's
collective community, which is to say that its myriad practices are perhaps not as
widely understood as the consensus process, DIY, or the widespread community
building practices of collective living. The veritable explosion of permaculture in
recent years, however, has seen permaculture design techniques and strategies,
increasingly integrated into collective house gardens and gardening projects across
the city. Permaculture's emergence within the communitynot just in terms of actual
garden plots at collectives, which is more common than nothas also given rise in
Denver to comprehensive city-wide food as social justice projects that many
residents within the community actually run or are integral components of.
The increasing popularity of permaculture has coincided with an
increasingly ecological feel to collective houses. There are very few collective houses
in Denver that do not have, in the least, a few food producing plants scattered about
the yard, if not a full scale permaculture designed garden with dozens of species of
plants. As early as February in many collective houses, seedlings or starts can be
seen in south facing windows, with cold hardy plants of the Brassicaceae family
(broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts etc), or the Chenopodiaceae family (beets, chard etc.)
planted outside in mid to late March. In this regard, the food most highly valued is
that which was grown closest. Food produced from a collective's garden, then, is the
most valued and food from a large multi-national grocery chain is least valued, but
not completely shunned altogether.
A number of food growing and producing projects over the years have
popped up or been sustained from within and by the Denver's collective community.
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Food Not Bombs, which receives organic, donated food and serves hot, vegan meals
to mostly homeless and indigent people at parks twice a week in Denver, has been
running continuously since at least 2002. An underground food and craft market has
also sprung from within the community. Occurring every month, the market regularly
attracts upwards of 300 people from in and around Denver. It is an underground
market, meaning that small DIY crafters and food producers can sell their wares
without the prohibitive overhead costs of incorporation and licensing fees. A
collectively owned and operated vegan, organic bakery, has been in operation since
2008, as well as other on-going and short lived food businesses that operate according
to autonomously generated values and often, but not always, independently of city or
state approval.
Within collective houses themselves, quality, organic, cheap, and nutritious
food, most often cooked vegan, are staples. Food is often bought in bulk, as in a 25
pound bag of garbanzo beans, lentils or brown rice, thus reducing costs and
packaging. From cooking and preparing meals for the entire collective house,
potlucks or other social events, to fermenting foods such as sauerkraut, bread, pickles
and even canning, food often serves as a focal point to the collective experience.
Different collectives have different policies and standards regarding the buying,
cooking and sharing of food. Yet after seven years of living collectively, I can say that
there exists a somewhat common and recurring dish cooked in collective houses that
is more or less becoming a cultural staple. This cultural dish is some variation of rice,
beans or lentils, with greens and root veggies, a various assortment of spices, and a
piece of whatever bread that was recently baked or dumpstered.
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In the permaculture community, market consumption in general is also
incredibly low, due to summer gardens, but also because residents are avid dumpster
divers, re-users and recyclerswhether it's furniture, assorted knickknacks, food or
clothing. Most to all produce is composted, and folks actively recycle not just bottles,
cans and paper products through the city-wide recycling system, but also recycle a
wide range of products among members of the collective itself. Shirts, pants, shoes,
boots, belts, and other essential (and not so essential) items are organized into a
common area often referred to as the free box. Some collectives, as is the case with
The Collective, will arrange the free boxwhich was actually a coat rack with big
boxes full of clotheson the front porch for neighbors, passersby and any other
visitors to rummage through and take or leave whatever they want.
While this ecological feel to collective houses within the community is
unmistakable, actual permaculture techniques and strategies that aim to create
regenerative, self-regulating ecosystems are somewhat slow to appear. Techniques
such as sheet mulching are commonplace as well as the corresponding strategy of no-
till or do-nothing soil building. Chickens are increasingly incorporated into backyard
gardens as well. And while the city and county of Denver recently passed the Food
Producing Animal ordinance which permits up to 8 fowl and 2 dwarf goats in
backyards, many collective houses have been raising chickens well before this
ordinance passed. In addition to this, activists and residents familiar with
permaculture design, are experimenting with different species and cultivars, testing
which ones are most adaptable to the short growing season, high, dry, and
unpredictable climate not only of the high plains, but also in Denver, specifically. The
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purpose here is not only to select species and cultivars that thrive in this climate, but,
for more advanced permaculturists and gardeners, to actually breed varieties of plants
that are more suited to this climate through the process of seed saving and cultivation.
Forest gardening, however, is not widespread within the community simply
due to the transient nature of the residents and collective houses themselves. A forest
garden can take years to mature into a fully functioning, self-generating ecosystem
capable of producing abundant produce and other essentials. And while actual forest
gardens are not widespread, the practice of growing plants in guilds or polycultures is
common. Variations of the famed three sisters guildcom, beans and squashare
growing currently at my collective house's garden. Instead of com, we are growing
heirloom, and what are believed to be drought tolerant tomatoes; beans which fix
nitrogen in the soil and so acts as fertilizer to the tomatoes; and squash which
provides ground cover thus reducing evaporation of water in the soil.
Transience among collective houses, however, is perhaps anathema to
creating forest gardens and permaculture generally, a veritable hindrance to
developing the capacity of a community to exist indefinitely into the future. Yet many
within the community who actively study and practice permaculture, believe that
permaculture and also forest gardens are actually needed most in the urban
environment for many reasons.
The Urban Imperative
There is a common sentiment within the community that permaculture
activism in the urban environment is necessary. As Denver resident and permaculture
practitioner, Adam Brock (2011), recently stated in a Permaculture Activist Magazine,
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the act of fleeing the city to seek solace in the country, feels like cheating. He
continues:
On a certain level, I know that if I turn my back on the metropolis, I'll be
doing so at my own peril: in our interconnected society, cities are
paradoxically both the most vulnerable and the most powerful structures
around. No matter how far we remove ourselves, we're all affected by
decisions made in citiesdecisions about land use, taxation, resource
extraction, and transportation infrastructure, to name a few. What's more,
cities contain a staggering amount of embodied energy, manifested in
structures both literal and invisible. As we enter an era of climate change
and energy descent, tremendous opportunity lies in retooling these products
of industrial civilization to build the foundations for more stable,
regenerative ways of life (pp 3-4)
While urban areas, according to Brock, act as centers of power that affect far reaching
decisions that impact many people's lives, they are vulnerable in the sense that they
require massive amounts of material inputs from surrounding areas and across the
globe in order to function on a daily basis. In order for an urban area and its
inhabitants to build the foundations for more stable, regenerative ways of life,
solutions have to be developed that cater not just to the surrounding countryside, but
especially in urban areas.
Yet for a true Permaculture to exist within an urban area, long term land
tenancy is required, and thus, sufficient amounts of capital investment is necessary.
For the mostly twenty something artists, intellectuals, students and musicians, such a
feat is not generally possible, unless other arrangements are worked out.10 Another
paradox exists due to the permaculture project in urban areas generally. Stable land
tenancy required for permanence and sustainable development within the collective
community is not a widespread possibility. As twenty something artists, musicians,
10 There are two collective houses within the collective community that have
purchased their homes due to external investment.
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cooks and students who are repelled by the 8-5 job market, they don't have the
necessary capital to buy a house with land. So, the lack of permanence, or the ability
to exist indefinitely into the future, required for a Permaculture, is not possible for
most collectives.
Section 3
The Collective
Section 2 explores the practical, day to day lives or culture of Denver's
collective community and the four anarchic values that sustain it. This section
explores in more detail these values on a much more personal level and in the context
of an actual collective house, The Collective. I utilize the ethnographic findings from
many hours of participant observation, seven interviews and a summary, researcher-
led discussion group that all took place at The Collective, or involved residents who
lived at The Collective.
These findings demonstrate the degree to which this alternative culture is
engaged in value-laden practices both culturally and ecologically. On the cultural end,
I bring to light a conflict, that however ongoing, did not destabilize the house and
actually opened up new understandings of community and consensus. On the
ecological front, I document both the physical structures inspired by permaculture
design, and also the immaterial or more value-laden perceptions that the residents
hold on a personal level in regard to philosophy of connection and to place. These
findings represent the degree to which cultural and ecological activism is becoming
self-regulating.
Community vs Consensus
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As mentioned above, The Collective was more values based as opposed to
ideologically based. Values in this sense refer to the anarchic norms of this culture
that have been adopted without a self-conscious adherence to any political ideology,
such as anarchism. Some residents identified with anarchism or as anarchists on a
daily basis, while others didn't overtly identify as political at all, yet most everyone in
the community participates in upholding these values. While the house was successful
in terms of maintaining stable tenancy, more so than many other collectives, it did not
come without conflict. This conflict was mostly due to different intentions and
expectations of residents who were more ideologically driven and wanted more of a
community-oriented, food sharing, and consensus-driven house on one hand, versus
those who didn't identify with anarchism or perhaps any radical ideas at all, and to
whom the idea of consensus and food sharing were quite foreign, on the other. It
eventually led to a separate apartment in the basement, conflicts over the sharing of
food and over participation in consensus meetings. I bring these conflicts to light
because they demonstrate core cultural values of the collective residents. In the words
of a more radical resident:
Theres definitely been internal drama over that. People are like, 'well Im
pretty sure that our house was founded on this thing, about being this thing,
and weve kind of always been working towards this thing.' Then other
people are like, 'I dont know what youre talking about, it wasnt founded
on anything. I think its just a bunch of people living together, thats all it is.
Hence the separatism. We have a separate basement apartment, and theyre
neighbors. Theyre not a part of the collective. But theyre cool and they
make sweet music.
Issues over intentions and expectations can certainly lead a house into the
realm of perpetual conflict. The downstairs neighbors, all of them heavily involved in
the DIY communi-scene via music, were definitely not against community, by any
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means. They simply just didn't identify with specific community building structures
(consensus) and aspects that the more radical residents of the upstairs house
practiced. Rather than devolve into perpetual conflict, however, both sides found a
compromise or balance that was sustained for nearly two years until the house was
forced to disband. Within this compromise, a valuable lesson of what I am calling,
strength in diversity emerged. In the words of another resident who identified with
the more anarchist leaning, upstairs residents:
I think some people might want us more cohesive and some people might
want more individuality but I think thats what community and diversity is
all about. It's keeping a healthy balance because if you're completely
surrounded by things that are so similar youre not really growing in my
opinion. And if youre just surrounded by people who dont care about
anything, or just doing their own thing, you dont really grow either. So it's
finding that balance. I think this is how broader social change is going to
happen, is making those connections with people that are different from you
and moving forward. It is hard, though (8-30-10).
The diversity of beliefs of residents contributed to a general absence of
overtly radical political events from taking place at The Collective with any regular
frequency. From a purely cultural perspective, however, The Collective was a
veritable hot bed of DIY innovation especially in the areas of DIY music, food, food
fermentation and social gatherings. The downstairs apartment of The Collective
consisting of those who opted out of the consensus run model to the chagrin, albeit
eventual acceptance of many of the upstairs residents was made up of prominent local
musicians who are not only well known in the Denver DIY music scene, but in many
respects define and maintain this scene's integrity, which is a commitment to DIY
ethics, the much larger communi-scene, and the making, production and distribution
of their own music. Where a communi-scene is made up of groups who value
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community, who exert considerable energy in creating and producing a culture of said
community, there are other groups within this communi-scene who are more
concerned with image and the consumption that culture. The downstairs residents
were definitely a part of the former. House shows were common at The Collective
with numerous local and sometimes touring artists playing for a packed living room
of eager and satiated audiences.
Often occurring simultaneously at the house shows were monthly full moon
pizza parties. Every month on the full moon, people from the community converged
on the collective to make, assemble and cook pizzas. Amazingly, the house cooked
500 pizzas over one year of full moon pizza parties. After the first year, the house
stopped counting and opted for quality over quantity.
The Collective's role in the overall collective community and also within the
larger DIY communi-scene was as a hub of social, cultural and ecological
experimentation and experience, with anarchic values of egalitarianism in the
forefront. These anarchic values existed either just beneath the surface or as
prominent features, depending on one's ideological or experiential disposition.
Through conflict and compromise, the house was able to sustain itself: We have had
some conflicts but they havent been as divisive. OK, some of us are more radical
than others and thats cool, but we can all do our own thing and work together as we
see fit. Its not dividing the house so much. I feel like we got a really good group of
people here (resident, 8-30-10).
Consensus at The Collective was a tough issue, as previously mentioned.
Many of the more anarchist leaning residents believed in its importance as a
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necessity. When faced with other residents' insistence to the contrary, however, they
relented with the understanding that strict adherence to egalitarian process can
actually impede the act of community building. What the residents of The Collective
learned was that community building can also lie in the ability to accept, compromise
and work with a diversity of people and beliefs. In this sense, creating maximum
effective solidarity through consensus (Graeber 2002), as the anarchist literature
suggests, doesn't necessarily require consensus, but a willingness to work together for
the sake of creating community and working towards the same goals. However
effective consensus may be in managing questions over action in the present along
egalitarian lines, according to Graeber (2009), the final resolve was keeping the house
together through compromise.
In this case, the value of community won out over the value of consensus.
The more anarchist oriented residents felt that strict adherence to the value of
consensus could jeopardize the ability of the community to stay together. The
common ground that residents could find, the common ground where their
community flourished, was a space for a cultural and ecological community striving
for self-regulation and other facets of daily life.
Permaculture and direct action
The Collective's permaculture garden and supporting structures were
particularly cutting edge for Denver due to some of the member's extensive
experience and study of permaculture. And it must be noted that I employ the word
cutting edge from a permaculture perspective in Denver's collective community.
While some of the permaculture inspired features of the garden (sheet mulched
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garden beds, herb spiral, compost piles) are described in the introduction, a few more
deserve mention here.
The main garden bed was formed into a keyhole shape. Instead of straight
lines, a shape that rarely exists in nature, the garden beds were made in a series of two
concentric circles broken only by a garden path that lead directly into the center or
keyhole of the garden. Such a circular shape is intended to increase the edge of
the garden beds, or the interface between garden bed and garden path. After the first
season, residents sunk the keyhole garden beds so that they rested a few inches below
the original soil line as a design strategy that took advantage of this edge effect. An
edge is where two different things, systems or mediums interact; in this case, the
edge existed between the rich soil of the garden bed and the compacted dirt of the
garden path. Holmgren (2002), in describing permaculture Principle 11: Use edges
and value the marginal, states, Design that sees edge as an opportunity rather than a
problem is more likely to be successful and adaptable (p 223). By utilizing the edge
between the sunken garden bed and the garden path, the design took advantage of rain
water that did not penetrate the compacted soil of the path, and therefore ran across
the edge and into the sunken garden bed.
Especially in drought prone regions such as Denverwhich is classified as
a semi-arid desert, receiving on average around 15 inches of moisture a year
rainwater is a scarce resource that design must compensate for. After the first year,
The Collective started experimenting with elevation differentials as a means of
directing water in other ways than with the edge of the garden beds. Using the left
over dirt that was excavated to sink the garden beds, a mound or berm was
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constructed adjacent the keyhole garden. Mostly drought tolerant species, edible
weeds, and sunflowers were planted on the berm which was built in a fashion so that
rain water would be redirected back into the beds.
A bike shelter built of mostly scavenged wood and housing as many as
twenty or so bikes was constructed in the yard at a sufficient angle so that rainwater
would collect into a rain gutter on the far edge of the roof. The rain gutter ran across
the fence that separated the yard from the garden where it emptied around a crab
apple tree with various species of food producing plants planted around it. In the yard,
as well, a porch was built, also from mostly scavenged materials, complete with
mismatched table and chairs.
While the physical, material structures of the permaculture garden allowed it
to flourish and produce substantial amounts of food, notice must be paid to the actual
perceptions that motivated the construction of these permaculture structures. In other
words, within the community-wide value of permaculture design, direct action and
DIY, there exists corollary values and perceptions that resonate with Permaculture
philosophy. A prominent cultural phenomenon and marker within The Collective and
across the community is a commitment to ecological sustainability, in other words:
Permaculture.
Permaculture philosophy at The Collective
One of the core tenets of permaculture philosophy is the irrevocable and
intimate connection between all species. Residents of The Collective, regardless of
whether or not they ever opened a permaculture book, felt this sense of connection.
When I raised the topic of connection, Many of the responses were unmistakably
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emotional. This perhaps does not come as a surprise being that many of the residents
over the years have been so closely involved in developing, growing and living
alongside permaculture designed gardens, ecologically oriented collective houses,
combined with an acute awareness of growing ecological destruction. On being
connected to the land and relationship to place, one resident stated: I feel the land is
sort of like this thing looking after me and I try to do my part to help nurture it
because it nurtures me in so many ways. I get so much energy just from living here. It
feels like in this particular place there is a connection that Ive never felt before (8-
31-10). As shown in this statement, A central component to the community-held value
of permaculture is connection to place, to ecosystems' life giving forces.
Throughout my research, a common sentiment that emerged was that this
connection prevents ecological destruction, that one cannot destroy the earth if one is
connected to itif one realizes its nurturing capacities. Once people are connected,
destruction will stop, (personal communication, 7-13-10), stated one resident. It is a
realization that, however empowering, can cast an ominous and bleak perception
upon mainstream society. Yet it is this bleak outlook that often leads to questions over
the roles and responsibilities of humanity's current relationship to nature, and
suggests that radical change is necessary:
I think that the way that humans are right now, with mainstream society, is
parasitic... I think we should be stewards, not even that, but a creature that
exists with the other creatures. It's this mutual relationship, where we get
food from the earth and we give back and renourish the earth. Its a
continuous relationship. To know that we are not bigger than nature but we
are a part of it and the humility that comes with that is necessary. We are too
caught up in domination...(personal communication, 8-31-10).
Throughout the permaculture philosophy is the idea that humanity's
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